The language of the people has aye needed people’s champions to keep it vigorous.
And for decades now one of the great champions of Scots in the north-east has been Sheena Blackhall.
The storied septuagenarian has produced work of great literary merit over decades, and is noted for marrying the couthy farming themes of the north-east versifiers with the high artistic ambitions of the great Scots makars.
Her honours are many.
In 2009 she was named the Makar for the north-east. Last year she was given an Honorary Master’s from Aberdeen University to go along with her previous Master’s studying Deeside Doric.
Last weekend saw the Elphinstone Institute event “Celebratin Sheena” taking place in Banchory, where various north-east performers, along with Sheena herself, staged fresh renditions drawn from her extensive back catalogue of plays, poetry, ballads and song. But Sheena doesn’t let all this go to her head.
“I learned a lesson fae the Traivellers (Scottish travellers/gypsies) lang ago. I had twa traivellers that helped me an affa lot. Een wis Stanley Robertson, the ither een wis John Stuart. Baith o them telt me ‘It’s nae aboot you. It’s aboot the traditions that yer cairryin on.’ So ma emphasis has aye been on the language an passin it on.
“The event mibbie should hae been caaed ‘Celebratin Doric’ mair than ‘Celebratin Sheena’, but that’s aa richt.”
Sheena even went so far as saying that having self-aggrandisement can hold people back in the north-east, where in other parts of Scotland it’s par for the course.
“Doon sooth people like their big names. Up here, personality doesnae cut the mustard. People like their language, they like their singin, they like their stories, but they’re nae greatly concerned wi fa’s tellin them, as lang’s it’s bein done sincerely.”
Sheena has devoted a lot of time to teaching bairns the basics of Scots, and introducing them to Doric culture through story, poetry and literature. She has produced many titles including the classic children’s story The Gruffalo’s Child in Doric, called The Gruffalo’s Bairn, and for years has taught in primary schools right across Aberdeen city and shire.
Just last month I had the pleasure of watching Sheena conduct an audience of 200 bairns from various primary schools in an interactive chorus of “shoogly woogly”, a Scots version of the Hokey Cokey. With a vigour that belied her 71 years, Sheena led them in putting their right fit in, their right fit oot, in oot, in oot, shak it aa aboot, before doing the “shoogly woogly an ye birl aboot…”.
The audience had umpteen nationalities and certainly only a minority of bairns would have been raised in Scots-speaking households, yet they were up on their feet, grinning from lug to lug, eagerly joining in.
Making the language fun and relevant is something Sheena achieves better than many.
But for all that, Sheena has kept any would-be acolytes very much at arm’s length, preferring to work alone. “I’m a bitty cat-like in that respect. I like deein ma ain thing, an spendin ma time writing. Folk hae tried to get me rinnin mentorship programmes, but I cannae really be scunnert wi it. Noo an again, fin I’m forced, I’ll rin a writers’ workshop but I find it’s like pullin teeth.”
Today, the language and attendant culture of the north-east seem in safer hands than previously. There are reams of books for bairns in general Scots and in Doric too. Schools across the region and across the country have started teaching the SQA Scots Language Award, and attitudes, once hostile at official levels to the common language of the people, seem to be shifting.
A further sign that north-east dialects of Scots have returned from the wilderness as a medium for serious art, and not merely for jokes and nostalgia, is the calibre and scope of work that can now reach publication.
Evertype Press has recently brought out Sheena’s translation of John Steinbeck’s classic tale of dust bowl America Of Mice and Men in north-east Scots. It is a riveting work, and one that sings its song as powerfully in Scots as in English. It has particular resonance in the north-east, as Sheena explained.
“The story is essentially twa orra loons that wanner aboot atween fairms. Fin ye think o the north-east, that’s fit happened tae the fairm workers. They were just moved on, shifted aboot, rootless. They’d nae sense o place, they’d nae security… hard times aye hit them hardest.”
As perhaps the majority of P&J readers have yet to encounter her work, or read one of her poems, I asked which of her pieces might act as a helpful introduction.
“Spring in Cromar,” she said, without a moment’s hesitation. And so this prolific poetic powerhouse leaves us with a meditation on the north-east in springtime. It is fitting both for the season and the sense that green shoots are growing from the bed of the Scots language, many of which spring forth from seeds Sheena herself has spent half a century spreading.
Spring in Cromar
by Sheena Blackhall
For the folk of Tarland, Coull and Migvie
Spring in Cromar is an open yett,
Wi the heich rigs turned an black,
For the creepy-crawly tractor climms
Frae the ploo-cuts at its back.
The meltin muir is rinnin weet,
A hare in an ermine coat;
An Lochnagar, thro the pearlin sleet,
Is the glimsk o a winter stoat.
The puddock’s eggs are preen-prick-sma,
An deid-wid-dry’s the breem;
Far the corbies craw b’ the peat-reet-wa
Is the tod wi the sleekit een.
The kinnel’t whin is a coorse carlin,
Wi her lang hair flamin reid –
An the racin rick, that’s furlin thick,
Is the mane o her elfin steed.
Spring in Cromar – snaw, sun, an rain –
It’s the sweet in the wid-wasp’s byke;
For there’s aye a sting in a Nor’east spring –
Wild-cat, wi its teeth bared fite!