The sea is, once again, a theme for our time. Our relationship to the coast is changing. In light of this sense of a tidal shift, and the fear of inundation, the project I’ve been developing during my residency with North Light Arts centres sea rise, coastal culture, and the promise of marine renewables. The result is a new book, minnmouth, which bodes the inshot and ootshot tide.
I have been exploring coastal names in Dunbar and the wider region, and working with toponymic research conducted by Leonie Dunlop. Some of the names have a blunt poetic quality typical of Norse and Scots inflected linguistic imagery. They include skerries scattered around Dunbar harbour, such as The Yetts, The Gripes, and Meikle Spiker. These names will be realised as poem objects, and possibly also a public sign on location.
I’ve included a discussion of some other local names later in this post.
The poems in minnmouth are anchored by place-names. I began by reading through collections, such as Marwick’s classic account of Birsay, and studies of Caithness, as well as peering down the coast on OS maps. I began from the assembled names, breaking them down into their basic elements of meaning and the imagery these projected, and then composed the poem around these. Confirmation for this process came with the discovery of minn, a Norse term which stretches from Shetland’s Banna Minn and Score Minni, down to Minsmere in Suffolk, and which means mouth and bay. In Scots this flows into the meaning mother, kin to the Indian amma. The child’s first mnnn nmm nmmm mnnnn represents its seeking for the breast and tide of milk to suckle. The flood of meaning propelled the book forward.
The texts that reuslted are the first body of poetry written in all of the regional languages of the East Coast of the British Isles, from the Out Stack of Unst to Great Yarmouth, and including Orkney and Shetland Norn c.1800, recorded in the dictionaries of Jakobsen, Marwick, Stout Angus, and Graham, the poetry of Robert Alan Jamieson, and, travelling down the coast to the Lothians and Berwickshire, the Dictionar o the Scots Leid (Dictionary of the Scottish Language). The book also records of English regional languages, including Forby’s The Vocabulary of East Anglia, and Bill Griffiths’ anthology Fishing and Folk. What these regions share is a tang of Norse, often worn away by the tides of successive accents and tongues.
It was curious, to me at least, that I have been active in terms of the cause of self-determination in Scotland, and now found myself exploring a project defined by the British Isles. In fact this reflects the core of my aesthetic and political beliefs, and has done ever since I first encountered Hamish Henderson’s ideas about hybridity when I was editing his essays and letters. One reason for involving Harry Giles in this ongoing project is his enquiries into the same issues – in this book I commissioned a new translation of Rimbaud’s famous vowels poem into Orcadian. For me there is an energy released by the hybridity of languages, the confusions and carryings over between speech communities, and the smudged stamp of folk names. Beyond that experiment was the speculative question: were the same things true of technology?
As a result of where the project had carried me, on my lilo out in the great ocean of speech, I ended up writing in the linguistic angles of Yorkshire or Suffolk, in words that I will never be able to pronounce “correctly.” The poems are composed in a phonetic synthesis of contemporary speech. Even though the vocabulary is sometimes archaic it agrees with Tom Leonard’s determination to ‘challenge that fixity of word by site-specifying it in the mouth of a particular speaker…’. It was helpful to find the poet and folklorist Peter Buchan denying there was any such thing as ‘the fisher tongue’: there are, or were, as many linguistic variations as fishing villages. Speech need not be a formula to make a gang of people, and some of the richest languages have no state.
This is the poem I wrote for one of the local skerries, The Yetts. It translates into English as: even the gap-toothed have to be careful how they sup, or they’ll end up in the soup.
THE YETTS, THE GATES
een th gap-toothd
hae tae min hoo dey sup
oar deyll end up i th soup
The Yetts (NT 681795) are line of skerries, like teeth, at the mouth of Dunbar harbour, beyond Lamer Island. A yett, in Scots is a gate, a pass or defile. The other Scots words in the poem are een, even; hoo, how, and deyll, they’ll. As you can see my use of Scots is unconventional and I have avoided apostrophes. I’m indebted to place-name expert William Patterson for help with some of these local names.
Further out from Dunbar is Fidra, one of the small isles of the Firth of Forth, or Frith, as it used to be known. This is the English version of the poem: one great light cleaves the dark and shines a road for feathers blown to and from the hospice walls
FIDRA, FEATHERY ISLE
ane meikle licht cleaves
th derk frith an glists
aroad fir fedders
blawn toanfrae spital walls
Fidra (NT 512868) is usually said to derive from Fether-ay, from fiðra, which is Old Norse (ON) for feather, giving feather isle, which would be explained by its seabird colonies. However, Patterson thinks this is a folk etymology, and he prefers the cruder Norse fuð, ON, cleft, split – a fanny, but in a less feathery way. Norse and Scots toponym are often wonderfully direct, rude, or frank in their references to the body, smells, and appearances. I remember first encountering the Scots fud in the playground at primary school – “get aff or I will kick you in the fud”. I was always vague about whether it referred to the vagina or arsehole; now I know that, while it can be both, it tends towards the front bottom. The island has such a cleft.
There are also a Stevenson lighthouse and ruins of a Cistercian lazaretto – quarantine hospital –built to treat infectious sailors on Fidra. Together those images made the poem. The Scots words used here includes meikle, muckle, Sc, big, great; glist, Sc, shine; fedder, Sc, feather.
SOW & PIGS
PECK O MEAL
THE BRIM CHEEK
These names of skerries and coastal rocks compose a found poem in the book. Leonie Dunlop was a great help in expanding the list with local examples. Bill Griffiths refers to these mnemonics that sailors gave reefs, rocks, and navigation points as ‘opaque’ names because their origins have become obscure. The notes that follow are dense, but they attempt some explanation of the derivations, as well as showing and surprising some of the alternative meanings. Names may be containers, but they do not always hold the meanings that at first they seem to.
The Gammels (NJ 797650), from gammul, OSc, gobble-up; rocks in Gamriel Bay, Banffshire.
The Rodgers (NT 614846), off Car Rocks , East Lothian; rodger, Sc, beat with violence, also anything ugly.
The Gripes (NT 678795), skerry off Dunbar Harbour; gripe, Sc, gasp, cling, hold fast; connecting strip of land; or seizure, pain.
Shitten Heugh (NT 918680), now White Heugh, first recorded in 1203 as Schitenhogesbelle, which refers to Bell Hill; shitten, from bird guano covering the sandstone, politely changed to ‘white’ in 19th century.
Hurker (NT 878702), skerry off Lumsdaine Shore, known locally as Lumsdaine Hurker, Berwickshire; hurker, possibly hunker, Sc, crouch on haunches, though Dunlop gives hare, boundary stone, and carr, rock, which may relate to rights to wrecks, or boundaries of land, giving my pun, Bounder.
Another example is Harden Carrs (NT 919681), ‘rocks next to the boundary dean’, derived from the lost Hardene (NT 917682), also Berwickshire. Patterson suggests hurks, Sc, stay idly in a place, do little, or to go about in a lazy underhand fashion, suggesting a dangerous rock that doesn’t readily show its presence.
Sheep Skerry (ND 352793), on Stroma. It was common to give reefs animal names, as with Sow & Pigs (NZ 329812), rocks off Blyth, Northumberland. The poet Katrina Porteous, who helped Bill Griffiths in his research, tells me that sailors considered pigs unlucky, along with other taboo, the salmon and rat.
Other examples include Shore Goats (NT 787717) and Red Ox (NT 812707), which “graze” the coastline. Shore Goats, probably a corruption of gote, Sc, rocky inlet, which Patterson notes has cognates in other Indo-European languages, such as gaoth, G, marshy channel, gat, Afrikaans, gully, with the basic sense of a channel which fills and empties at intervals, as in the anatomical gut or a tidal creek, such as Willington Gut, North Tyneside.
Red Ox, red sandstone rock near Siccar Point, of bovine appearance. Dunlop suggests that these farming terms may have been coined along the coast as metaphorical names creating the image of a continuous farmyard.
The Rooks (NT 849708) and Tods Rocks (NT 840701), perhaps named for the appearance of the rocks washed by the sea, having a sleek black appearance, or ruck, Sc, haystack’, or derivative of ‘rock’; Tod, Sc, fox, explained fancifully in OS Name Books as ‘Foxes used to lie on its summit’.
Hoolibaloos, Cleveland skerry recorded by Stanley Umpelby, who gave the translation Blowers.
Sie Skerry, west of Haven of Wares, Seaweed Haven, Canisbay, Caithness; Ware is found in Northumberland where Ware Roads appear on maps of Tyne Mouth and other locations indicated places seaweed was collected.
Mow Skerry, Stroma, from mjó, ON, narrow, or má, sea-mews, gulls; from the same derivation Simon Taylor gives the Isle of May as Má Ey, ON, Gull or Mew Isle. Peter Buchan records skurry, myaave, and pule as North-east names for the common gull.
Peck O Meal (NT 919685), small rock perhaps named after Horse Castle (NT 918684) as the fodder; the etymology of horse is uncertain.
Meikle Spiker (NT 683793), rock by Dunbar Harbour, part of Lamer Island, Rockquay Island, ON, hládhamarr, rock formation forming a natural quay; meikle, muckle, Sc, big, great; spiker, Sc, large nail, spike.
Babrick (NT 918685) and Girdle (NT 918685), which Dunlop noted are Scots for bakeboard and griddle; probably these flat rocks side by side on the Berwickshire coast were named together.
Maiden Kaim (NO 882833), promontory near Dunnotar castle, Stonehaven, next to The Brim Cheek, The Sprayed Cheek; kaim, comb, Sc, camb, OE, steep-sided ridge, crest.
The references for these notes include:
Peter Buchan, Fit Like, Skipper
Dictionary of the Scots Language/ Dictionar o the Scots Leid
Leonie Dunlop, PhD, ‘Breaking old and new ground: a comparative study of coastal and inland naming in Berwickshire’
Bill Griffiths, Fishing and Folk
Iain M.M. Johnstone, Viking Place-names in East Lothian
John Mowat, The Place-names of Canisbay, Caithness
William Patterson, email to AF
A. Stanley Umpleby, Dialect of Staithes
Dr Simon Taylor with Gilbert Márkus, Place-names of Fife Series
Adam Watson, Place Names in Much of North-East Scotland
Doreen Waugh, The Place-names of Six Parishes in Caithness (PhD)
As well as a book of speculative research into languages using the medium of poetry, minnmouth is also accompanied by tidesongs, a composition for multi-layered voice and vocal processing, composed and performed by Hanna Tuulikki and Lucy Duncombe. This is crafted from elements, words and phrases, derived from the poems and notes. This piece features in the exhibition in Dunbar, which opens this June. The piece carries the listener from mouth to sea and back again. It can be listened to and purchased here. Listening through headphones or quality speakers is recommended.
While the poems thrived off seaweed pools and beating waves, Hanna and Lucy’s composition extended out into the estuary and sea. The bay, or mouth, became the motif that tied the different elements of the project together.
While I was scanning place-name collections and maps in the National Library, I had a second pile of books on the Russian Futurist – or willbeist – poets, who referred to themselves as wordmakers. I found their ideas provided a methodology for working with the elements of language the names were provided, because the linguistic archaeology of place-names released the kinds of energized vocabulary, or sounds, the Russians worked with. To reflect this I also produced a body of visual poems, suggesting flow, energy, technological forms, and tides, such as OOBIN (below), which described the far off sound made by the breakers, in Shetland Norn.
In my thinking on culture, and specifically language, in relation to renewable energy, I have proposed wavewright and windwright as terms for designers of energy devices, and, in a more fictional spirit, speechwright, for makars – those who follow the precepts of my imaginary movement, tidalpoetics. In this respect minnmouth riffs on, or off, the poetics of the willbeists, especially the most inspired speechwright of all, Velimir Khlebnikov. He grew up by the Caspian Sea among the Kalmyk people, ‘Mongol nomads of a Buddhist faith’, and Shklovsky said: ‘his entire being pulsated with the future’. Vladmimir Markov explains that ‘the sounds of foreign tongues’ marked Khlebnikov’s poetry, with its use of neologisms, dialect, and ancient languages, lending it ears for sound over sense.
‘People say a poem must be understandable. Like a sign on the street, which carries the clear and simple words “For Sale.” But a street sign is not exactly a poem. Though it is understandable. On the other hand, what about spells and incantations, what we call magic words, the sacred language of paganism, words like “shagadam, magadam, vigadam, pitz, patz, patzu”– they are rows of mere syllables that the intellect can make no sense of, and they form a kind of beyonsense language in folk speech. Nevertheless an enormous power over mankind is attributed to these incomprehensible words and magic spells, and direct in uence upon the fate of man.’
– Velimir Khlebnikov, tr. Paul Schmidt, ‘On Poetry’ (1919)
‘The poet’s justification is the richness of his vocabulary.’
– Sadok sudei II, A Trap for Judges II, Russian Futurist manifesto , 1913, D. Buriuk, Gure, N. Buriuk, V. Majakovskii, E. Nizon, V. Khlebnikov, B. Livchits, A. Kruchenykh
Minnmouth includes a series of sentences that characterise tidalpoetics. This is an extract.
our first nine months are spent listening to tidepoems
a poem should emerge from the sea of locality
a word’s potential energy is not defined by meaning alone
poet: designer of devices – poem: device for transferring energy
(after Charles Olson)
language is energised by the gyring of sound and sense
dialect is an energy resource
there is no universal language – only a daily struggle between dialect and textual authority
as with any efficient machine standard speech involves the minimisation of variation
the standardisation of language is a result of economies of scale – what is gained in terms of intelligibility is lost in terms of local accuracy
use makes language what it is – dialect is dialectical!
all languages undergo a sea-change – some coastlines erode, some survive
for Khlebnikov’s mystical Law of the Seesaw we now propose the Principles of the Wave
the noise waves produce is their time in space
not the poem per se, but the poem per sea
Khlebnikov interpreted each letter as an operation: the stroke of script a wave of energy
poetic devices test the possibilities of writing
a tidepoem reaches beyond rational land into the immeasurable domain of the sea
the tension between sound and sense is the means by which tidepoems produce energy
tidalpoetics returns a productive role to sound
tidepoems are led towards error, dream, and prophecy, by phonemes
I like my poetry the way I like my sea: flutheran, cerulean, flecked with spume
Minnmouth seeks a potential vocabulary that exceeds conventional orthography. My speculative fantasy was that this could evolve into a locally-aligned resource aligned with offshore technology. If poetry itself cannot produce energy to light a house, at least it can support the radical energy shifts our culture requires, combining the notions of minimal form and ingenuous device.
Indeed I had evidence that the process by which designs evolve is metaphorically engaged with the sea, for instance, in marine devices such as The Oyster – seen here in the process of installation for tests at Billia Croo – and the more mythic Pelamis’ Sea Snake. This new book follows on from Ebban an Flowan, which includes photographic documentation of devices being tested on, or off, Orkney, as well as a primer on tidal language.
I discovered a Norse folk-myth common to the Northern and Western Isles, of how the tidestream originates in a quern (handmill) that grinds all the salt in the sea. This offers a foundation myth for marine turbines – perhaps the new industry requires such mythopoetics? Certainly, for now at least, energy landscapes like Orkney and Scoraig are sites of power that exemplify localism in a way the Brent Oil Field arguably never did.
On Orkney and Scoraig wavewrights and windwrights amount to an island avant-garde in their approach to design. (Scoraig may be attached to the mainland but the journey there by boat makes it an honorary isle). The anthropologist Annabel Pinker characterises the design philosophy of Hugh Piggott, which defines life on Scoraig, as ‘deliberately working with materials that aren’t already adapted to one another, finding ways to build relations between them – to make them commensurable. The frictions between the parts is – partly – what makes the technology so vibrant and alive’. Pinker and Piggott could be speaking of exactly the kind of poetics this project aspires to. As isolated as these places may seem, to some, their influence is international, remote only to The Palace of Westminster.
The third volume in this ongoing engagement with language, coastal culture, and renewable energy will be titled Broken Flowers. It will appear this Autumn, as part of an exhibition at Taigh Cheasabhagh. I am sharing the shows in Dunbar and Uist with Hannah Imlach. Together Hannah and I are interested in exploring the relationship between natural forms and technology. In terms of the Western Isles, we are aware that the land and sea are about to become an extractive site for devices, many of which were developed on Orkney. The tensions between the renewable energy industry and the creative localist approach of a figure like Piggott will be wrestled with in that book.
As Vahni Capildeo says, there are still people who think they have no accent: their speech has a hold on power, but it lacks energy. My fictional movement, tidalpoetry, dreams of an alliance of wavewrights and speechwrights, energy devices and poetic devices, to create comradely inter-disciplinary spaces for energised speech production, to apply poetics to problems of design (and vice-versa), to counter petrolio, and forge a post-carbon culture – or, at least, devise a poetics for a drowned world.
To conclude this post here are some local names that I have been working on, with help from Leonie Dunlop and William Patterson. There’s the possibility we may develop a place-awareness mapping project based on this in the future.
scart, Sc, cormorant
Scart Rock (NT 677796) is in Dunbar’s outer harbour. An alternative derivation is from Iain M.M. Johnstone in Viking Place-names of East Lothian, who suggests skara, ON, jutting out, or skári, young sea mew (gull).
Scoughall Rocks is from skogr, N, a wood, which becomes shaw in Scots; or alternatively is a nickname, Skuggie, which relates to skuggi, N, shadow, spectre. The hall element is from Hallr, N, settlement. However, Johnstone is certain that Scoughall is a fiend, from an early document which gives the Old English scucca, demon, malevolent spirit, and halh, probably here in the sense of secluded corner, though the origin of the ubiquitous haugh for flat land by a river. As so often with names there are choices to be made about whose information one trusts.
This area of the sea is named from leið, assembly place, sea road, passage, and on old maps it is referred to as Leith Roads. The same name-form appears in Suffolk, at Yarmouth Roads, and these names are a reminder of when the sea was a highway.
These days glad, or gled, is often given as a buzzard but it is, in fact, from gleða, ON, hakk, Sc gled, which refers to a kite, the gliding raptor.
A podlie, or podling, is a young coalfish, or pollack. I wondered if fry would be suitable?
Podlie Craig (NT 590855) refers to a point near Tantallon. Nearby is Gin Head, from gin, N, mouth of a fish or animal, and Johnstone says it does have a fish shape.
The Gegan is at the west end of Auldhame Bay. Patterson thinks that “Gegan is probably just Scots for giant, as from the right direction it may look like a giant’s head.” Johnstone, who is sometimes over-keen on Norse connections, gives an alternative, gegn, meaning straightforward, or gentle and steady, which he explains in terms of the lack of rocks on this stretch of coast. I hae ma doots.
Working from the DSL, frizzle is Scots for the hammer of a flint-lock pistol or gun. The steel used for striking fire from a flint. Whether this is really the derivation for this wood I am unsure, so I share it as an invitation for alternative interpretations.
Finally, to give an idea of what is involved in this kind of work, this is an extract from one of Bill Patterson’s emails to me:
“I noticed a ‘Milsie Brae’ on the 1:25,000 OS map, about 1 km south of the Eskdalemuir seismological station. I then did what is often useful to do in the case of an odd name, and I should have tried before – looked at a dictionary of Scots. And indeed there is a word milsie, earlier milk-syth, and meaning a ‘milk-strainer’ or ‘milk-pail’. Though how this can be applied to a bay or a brae remains a bit of a puzzle. Garbled Gaelic is still not excluded, particularly as neighbours of Milsie Brae are Glendearg and Tomleucharbrae.”
floers: an exhibition by Hannah Imlach and Alec Finlay, North Light Arts, Dunbar, 7 – 25 June. An opening event with a coastal walk, poetry reading, relay of tidesongs, and gallery conversation will be held on Saturday June 10th.
Hannah is installing Hexagonal Island Host sculpture (with live Quillwort plants) this May, and will then show documentation of this in the gallery in June. She is also creating a new sculpture which contains local coastal plants from the dune systems at Belhaven Bay.
Minnmouth was commissioned for North Light Arts, Dunbar and Hull UK City of Culture 2017.
The book was designed by StudioLR with Alec Finlay.
In terms of the residency with North Light Arts and the book Alec would like to thank to Harry Giles, Katrina Porteous, Ian Duhig, Peter Trudgill, Alistair Peebles, Leonie Dunlop, William Patterson, Laura Watts, and Ken Cockburn for their guidance in terms of Orkney Norn, Scots, Northumbrian, Yorkshire, East Anglian, and Danish words and names. Harry Giles’ Orcadian version of Rimbaud’s ‘ Vouels’ was commissioned for this project. Thanks to Golden Handcuffs review for publishing some of the poems. Thanks also to Alastair Letch, Hanna Tuulikki and Lucy Duncombe, Pete Smith, Amy Porteous, Jenna Corcoran, Annabel Pinker, Caroline Wickham-Jones, Kat Jones, Vahni Capildeo, Peacock Visual Arts, Lucy Gray, Dave King, and StudioLR; and to Steven Bode, Hull UK City of Culture 2017, Susie Goodwin North Light Arts (Dunbar), and Creative Scotland for supporting the project.
Minnmouth is a companion to Ebban an’ Flowan, a book made in collaboration with Laura Watts and Alistair Peebles, published in 2015, available for £10 from Studio Alec Finlay.
Artworks relating to minnmouth are currently being exhibited in ‘Somewhere Becoming Sea‘, a Film and Video Umbrella curated exhibition in Hull, 5 April – 17 June 2017.
This blog includes photographs of the coast near Dunbar by Hannah Devereux, from a project commissioned for the opening of the John Muir Way, 2014.