Hazel McHaffie

A Scots Quair

Lyrical writing and birdsong

Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Heard of him? Hmmm. Well, the name will elicit a groan from many a Scot who’s been forced to study his writings during their formative years.

But growing up 500 miles away I had no knowledge of either the books or the author in my youth. Shame! Shame! I hear you cry. Quite rightly. Time then to rectify this disgraceful hole in my education.

Sunset SongI made my first stab a couple of years ago. A good friend lent me his copy of Sunset Song, the first of the famous A Scots Quair trilogy. It took me a while to get into it, but you know me and my obsessions, I persisted – didn’t want to lose favour with the said good friend anyway – and eventually I got the hang of the language and style and enjoyed it.

This week I returned for more, but I confess it was initially in a spirit more of ‘I ought to’ rather than ‘I want to’. So it was an exhilarating feeling to find myself this time instantly into the lilting language LGG uses to evoke the ‘swing of the horses at the plough, the rhythm of the wind upon the woods, the surge of the tumbling land where the mountains run down to the sea, “the speak” of the men who toiled and loved and quarrelled …’ as his friend and critic, Ivor Brown, puts it. Absolutely! Fabulous writing. Not only amazingly poetic but also so evocative of the hard life lived between the Grampians and the North Sea in the granite towns and peaty crofts in days of old. I loved it. So I guess you could say, I finally ‘got’ what all the fuss was about!

Cloud HoweAmongst other things LGG uses marvellously onomatopoeic words to capture bird calls, and it’s in this second book, Cloud Howe, that I found the phrase, ‘a starlings’ murmur’ meaning ‘a drowsy cheep on the edges of dawn’, which reminded me of one of my own current preoccupations. As you know, I’ve been wakened at an unseemly hour for some weeks now, by the phenomenal dawn chorus. Astonishing really, given that it’s dark for such a short time here in Scotland in the summer. You’d think the wee creatures would be too exhausted to bother to lift their heads out of their feather and down duvets.

But lying there listening … and wondering … I started to invent appropriate collective nouns for these noisy neighbours (a writer’s equivalent of counting sheep). And that led me to look up such names – authenticated ones. I’m going to share a few of the best with you:

Dissimulation of birds (small)
Building of rooks
Charm of goldfinches
Exaltation of larks
Murder of ravens
Skein of ducks (flying); raft of ducks (swimming)
Parliament of owls
Murmuration of starlings
Siege of bitterns
Ostentation of peacocks
Scold of jays
Covert of coots

Fantastic, aren’t they? But then, words are.

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