Author Archives: Birlinn

Poetic Remembrance of the Fallen Soldiers of the Great War and the Tragedy of the Iolaire

In the early hours of New Year’s day 1919, HMY Iolaire sank just off the coast of Stornoway, the harbour lights could be seen from the deck. The boat was carrying soldiers returning from the war, some of whom had not been home or seen family and friends in years. 174 of the islanders on board perished in the icy sea.

In the morning many of the men were found, home at last, washed up on the shore.

Although this took place in peacetime and has been recorded as one of the most tragic British ship disasters since the Titanic sank in 1912, tributes have been made in poems and songs in remembrance of the men of Lewis and Harris that fought and survived the horrors of the First World War only to perish on the sea with home in sight.

The following poem, ‘Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn’, by Murdo MacFarlane, tells the heartbreaking Beneath Troubled Skiesstory of the island women getting ready: baking bread and lighting the home, peat fires longing to see their boys home again only to wake to hear the tragic news and to find them washed up on the shore.

This poems is taken from Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at War, 1914–1918, published by The Scottish Poetry Library and Polygon.

Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn

The lassie sang sweetly
in Lewis last night,
baking her bread
with a heart full of light
and thoughts of her darling,
longing for the sight
of her true love
come safely home.

The war is now over,
won by the heroes
who come home tonight:
the Iolaire’s cargo.
Put peat on the fire
and tea from the jar; Oh,
I’ll not sleep, sweetheart,
’til morning comes.

They’ll tell their tales
and we’ll listen to them,
to the feats of the sea-faring
tartan-clad men;
of the brave ones who fell
and will not rise again,
so many fine lads
who were brought down.

Hear the wind moaning –
Oh, hear it blow,
hear the sea’s mocking cry
come from the depths below.
The poor lads who must battle
the sea and the foam!
Spread your wings, Iolaire,
haste with my love.

As the day breaks
our hope fades away,
the kettle on the chain
pipes a sorrowful lay;
she stops going to the door
with more peats for the flame;
hear the wind’s harsh whistle:
Ochone, Ochone.

The lassie wept sorely;
in the morning they found,
lying in the seaweed,
her love’s body, drowned,
without shoes on his feet
as they brought him aground;
she bent down and kissed
his lips so cold.

Last night the Iolaire was torn,
her brood drowned at the oars;
from Harris to Ness
our fair soldiers we mourn.
Since you won’t bring them live
bring them drowned to our shores;
to the sea’s hungry mouth
we’ll look no more.

Murdo MacFarlane
(translated from Gaelic by Niall O’Gallagher)

The Gaelic word ‘iolaire’ means ‘eagle’.

Beneath Troubled Skies is available online and in all good bookshops.

Revisiting and Reviving ‘The Buke of the Howlat’ by James Robertson

James Robertson and Kate Leiper have produced one of the most striking children’s books of the year, ‘The Book of the Howlat’ – and the Scots Version, ‘The Buke of the Howlat’ – is a re-telling, in prose, of one of Scotland’s oldest poems.

In this blog, author James Robertson, talks about the history of the text, its importance and how he, and illustrator Kate Leiper, breathed new life into the story and re-wrote it for a 21st century audience.


The Book of the HowlatSir Richard Holland’s poem The Buke of the Howlat was composed in the 1440s at Darnaway Castle, Morayshire, for the Earl and Countess of Moray. It is a very long poem, made up of 77 stanzas of 13 lines each, and is written in medieval or Middle Scots. A very early work in the Scottish literary canon, it has survived until today because it was preserved in two documents, the Asloan and the Bannatyne manuscripts, compiled in the 16th century.

The poem is an allegory in which the birds of the air are given human traits: the central character, a howlat or owl, hates his ugly appearance and appeals to the peacock, the spiritual head of the birds, to help him. (In medieval Scotland owls were not considered beautiful and wise, as they are today.) The peacock summons a conference of birds and, after a great feast complete with songs and other entertainment, they decide to summon Dame Nature and ask her to improve the Howlat’s appearance. Nature commands each bird to donate one of its feathers to the Howlat who, thus transformed, becomes unbearably arrogant. The birds call on Dame Nature again, and she restores the owl to his former state, leaving him to conclude that he should have known his place and not been so ambitious.

A large chunk of the poem – about a quarter – is a passage extolling the virtues and valiant deeds of the Douglas family. Richard Holland was the Earl’s secretary, and knew on which side his bread was buttered. But although this section is of interest to historians, it is tedious fare for most modern readers, and holds up the main action for twenty stanzas! When I was asked by Birlinn to write a new version of The Buke of the Howlat, for a 21st-century audience and in prose rather than verse, it was soon clear that the Douglas praise section had to go.

Then, when Kate Leiper and I had our first meeting to discuss how we were going to combine my words with her illustrations, we also agreed that the moral of the original poem – ‘Know your place, and stay in it!’ – was not quite the message we wanted to send out in 2016, especially as we hoped many of the book’s readers would be young people. We felt that we could tweak the moral slightly without betraying the spirit of the poem: ‘Know yourself – and make the most of what you are!’ Our new Buke of the Howlat is a variation on the ‘Ugly Duckling’ theme. Kate had the brilliant though challenging idea of showing the Howlat growing from a chick into a fully-fledged adult, a bird of the night not of the daylight:

‘Oh, oh, I see now!’ the Howlat cried, and his voice carried far through the trees… ‘I
wanted to be something I could not be, when what I had to do was be patient, until I
grew into myself . . . To be truly happy, you have to be true to your own nature.’

I don’t think my challenges as writer were as great as Kate’s as illustrator. Still, I had to consider a number of issues. Richard Holland’s poem is written in an alliterative style, much in vogue at the time:

He grat grisly grym and gaif a gret yowle,
Cheverand and chydand with churliche cheir.
‘Quhy is my fax,’ quod the fyle, ‘fassonit so foule,
My forme and my fetherem unfrely, but feir?’

I wanted to retain some of this alliteration, and I managed this without too much difficulty, but without overdoing it, as in the opening descriptive passage:

The air was fresh, the fields were green, flowers were blooming, deer were grazing. A broad river flowed through a forest of tall trees, and as it went by them the trees bowed their branches to the water.

Another challenge was that I had been asked to produce two versions, one in English and the other in Scots. Sometimes the alliteration worked better in Scots:

Sae the Howlat set aff, scuggin alang in the shaddas as weel’s he could, till he cam tae the Paycock, wha wis prinkin up and doun in the castle gairden.

the-buke-of-the-howlatMy Scots version is closer to the original poem in terms of vocabulary (my Howlat ‘greets’ just as Holland’s ‘grat’) and syntax than the English version. However, I also needed to make the Scots accessible to readers, young and old, who may hear and speak Scots but seldom see it written down, and whose Scots vocabulary may not be that extensive. For this reason we decided to include a short glossary of the more unusual words in the Scots edition. But any reader cribbing from the English edition should have no difficulty reading the Scots. (I confess I prefer the Scots, partly because it seems more conversational: in English, the Peacock ‘must be one of Nature’s favourites’. In Scots, ‘He maun be awfie chief wi Nature.’) The two texts thus complement each other, and in fact when I was revising them I found that I was adjusting the English in the light of the Scots, and vice versa, hopefully bringing out the strengths and subtleties of both languages.

Another challenge was to ensure that my words fitted with Kate’s beautiful images. She worked from an early draft of my English version, and then, as her illustrations took shape, I adjusted some of my words to fit them. At least one of these adjustments came very late on: in the banquet scene, I had written of the Jay juggling gold goblets, but Kate had drawn them as gold-rimmed. Fortunately, this was easily corrected, but had we missed it no doubt some eagle-eyed reader would have pointed out the inconsistency!

Sometimes the words are hardly needed. I love the final image of the Howlat flying off into the night and his new life. It’s a two-page spread, but only fifteen English, or sixteen Scots words appear. The picture, in this instance, says it all!

By James Robertson

Both The Book of the Howlat and The Buke of the Howlat are available now, from all good bookshops and online.

Discovering ‘The Un-Discovered Islands’

Ahead of the launch of one of our hugely anticipated books by the marvellous Malachy Tallack – author of last year’s travel memoir Sixty Degrees North, and the tremendously talented illustrator of Animalium, Katie Scott – we are publishing an extract from The Un-Discovered Islands.

In this extract Malachy introduces the book and explains why he set out to write this book about the many phantom, fake and mythical islands.
un-discovered-islandsI remember well the motto of the Anderson High School in Lerwick, displayed on the brightly coloured crest that was fixed to the gates outside. ‘Dö weel and persevere’, it counselled. At some point we pupils must have been told the origin of these words, for they were intimately tied to the place itself. ‘Dö weel and persevere’ was the formative advice given in 1808 to the young man Arthur Anderson, later to be the industrialist Arthur Anderson, co-founder of the P&O shipping company, member of parliament for Orkney and Shetland, and benefactor of the school that still bears his name.

It was not a particularly stirring piece of advice. To me it sounded half-hearted, like the words of an inattentive father patting his son absent-mindedly on the head. But the story of Anderson’s rise from poverty to philanthropy was supposed to inspire young Shetlanders. It was part of the history of our school and the history of our islands. The implication was that, if heeded, these words could help shape our futures too. Hard work and perseverance: those were the lessons that would lead us forward.

Accompanying that motto on the crest were three Viking images – an axe, a longship and a flaming brand – alongside another, more ambiguous inscription. On a yellow scroll across the centre of the emblem were three words in Latin that pointed to a rather different part of our history.
‘Dispecta est T hule’: Thule was seen.

Though I passed through those gates countless times in my years at school, no teacher ever explained the Latin words they bore, and I never bothered to ask. From somewhere, I had gathered a vague notion that Thule was supposed to be the edge of the world, and that somehow Shetland was it, or at least it once had been. But in my youthful head that word was connected most closely with the Thule Bar down at the harbour, a far more mysterious and tantalising place for a teenage boy.

It was not until several years later, when school was long behind me, that I learned the origin of this motto. Thule was indeed the edge of the world, but it was more than that. It was an island once believed to be real but now absent from the maps. It was a place that was no longer a place. The words themselves came from the Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, was governor of Britain in the late first century AD. Sailing north of mainland Scotland, Agricola had seen Shetland on the horizon and believed it to be Thule, the northernmost point in the classical world. He pinned the label to the islands, but it didn’t stick for long. Thule was seen, and then once again it disappeared.

In hindsight it seems odd that such a phrase was considered a suitable decoration for those gates, since its message so obviously clashed with the one that accompanied it on the crest. According to the school motto, Shetland was as pivotal a place as we, its sons and daughters, wished to make it. Arthur Anderson was an important man – his ships had sailed the world’s oceans – and like him we could go anywhere and do anything. But in those three words from Tacitus, Shetland lost its identity altogether and tumbled off the edge of the map. Hitched to the idea of Thule, we barely even existed at all. It was a peculiar contradiction, but something in that unreal geography appealed to me.

Later I found that the oceans are full of such places: islands discovered and then un-discovered. They have existed in every part of the world, and some appeared on maps for many centuries before finally being erased. These islands have not been lost to rising seas or to earthquakes; they are not the victims of natural disasters. These islands are human in origin, the products of imagination and error.

Gathered in this book is a whole archipelago of un-discovered islands, grouped into six sections. The first are Islands of Life and Death: mythical places, confined to stories. Setting Out introduces islands found by early travellers in the Atlantic and Pacific, when few people knew the world beyond their own shores. The third group emerged during the Age of Exploration, as European sailors began to crisscross the globe with increasing regularity. The fourth are Sunken Lands, once thought to have been submerged; while the fifth are Fraudulent Islands, invented by hoaxers and liars. The sixth and final group are Recent Un-Discoveries, made during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Each of these places has its own story. None is exactly alike. Some have helped to shape entire
cultures, while others have been barely noticed. Some are strange and fabulous, while others are utterly believable. All of them reflect in some way the values of their age, and all of them have enriched the geography of the mind. This book seeks to celebrate and commemorate these un- discovered islands, and, through them, tell the story of how we have created our image of the world.

The Un-Discovered Islands is published on the 13th of October and will be available in all good bookshops and online.