Sunday, May 19, 2019

Moder Dy - Roseanne Watt

Where Transport for London gave us poems on the underground, Shetland has Bards in the Bog - if you find yourself using a public toilet, chances are there will be a poem in the back of the door. The Bards in the Bog project called for original works from local contributors and I'm thinking about it now because it says so much about the continually evolving relationship with dialect and language that places like Shetland have.

When I was growing up in Shetland the oil industry was in its early days, it was bringing prosperity, but the pace of change was relatively slow, and I suppose the traditions of crofting life were something that could more or less be taken for granted - and for many something to escape from.

Dialect was widely spoken, but in our village from a child's point of view it was not the language of authority. My teachers were mostly mainland Scots, as was the minister, and the Doctor, and his wife. My parents were incomers too, so I never picked up an accent, and I have a sense that the use of most dialect words was discouraged at home. The exception to that was perhaps in bird and other wildlife names.

Malachy Tallack talks about the twin pillars of accent and ancestry in Shetland society in '60 Degrees North' which particularly resonated with me, because of you don't have both (and neither of us did) you remained an outsider. As an outsider dialect was harder to pick up because of the Shetland habit of Knapping - modifying dialect to be easier to understand to non native speakers (Watt defines this as "to speak in an affected manner, a Shetlander attempting to speak 'proper' English).

By the time my younger brother and sister where at school (1990's) attitudes towards dialect had changed to the point that they were actively encouraged to collect words. Shaetlan as a language is predominantly a mix of old Norn, lowland Scots, and English, which more or less reflects the history of the islands. The Moder Dy this collection takes its name from refers to the mother wave - an underswell that's meant to always travel in the direction of home and which you could steer by when you were out of sight of land.

Some of the poems here are written entirely in Shaetlan, they come with 'uneasy translations' - sister poems - they are close to each other but discernibly different. (There's a glossary to consult if you want a more direct translation of specific words). Other poems mix dialect with English, some don't use dialect at all, but it's a continuous thread throughout the collection, which makes language, where it comes from, how it evolves, and how we use it a consistent theme.

That it's taken me almost 3 hours just to write this much about one aspect of this collection is probably as good an indication as I can give about how much there is to it. I've been reading through it for days, slightly desperate for someone to share my enthusiasm with. Especially for Nesting Faerie Ring, which takes 14 words to sum up a thousand + years of folklore warnings about Faeries, whilst summoning a vivid vision of the thing itself, and creating an unsettling momenti mori. In 14 words.

But then every poem has revealed something, and continues to give more with each reading. They've stretched time whilst I've read them on tea breaks and bus journeys - a scant quarter of an hour turned into a profound pause in my day, and provoked a whole range of emotion which has sometimes been uncomfortable.

I really can't overstate just how damn good I think this collection is, how rich it is, or how much I want everybody I know to read it. I am absolutely in awe of what Roseanne Watt has done here, hers is a voice to follow.


  1. This sounds amazing! It's not a book I would ever have discovered by myself - one of many things I love about your blog, it's a mix of tastes I already share and entirely new things.

  2. Thank you! This collection has really got under my skin, I read a bit (not a lot) of poetry, this is the first time I've really made a connection between what I'm reading and conversations I'm having - rather than thinking about it more or less as art for arts sake I suppose. It's a bit of a Damascene conversion for me!