Sam Milne: The Desolate Shore

Scottish trawler


Sam Milne writes:

I was born in Aberdeen in 1953. My parents moved to the countryside when I was five. We first lived in a fishing village (Portlethen) in Kincardineshire and then at a railway halt in Aberdeenshire (Pitmedden, near Dyce) where my father worked as a linesman until he lost his job due to the Beeching cuts (Dr Beeching, surprisingly, kept his own branch line open to get to his golf club). We then moved then to Corby (I was about twelve or so) in Northamptonshire where my father was employed as a steelworker. As I had started writing poems in Scots about the age of ten or so I continued to write later, but mainly in (atrocious) English.


Sam milne cropped


 After Corby Grammar School (where I read MacDiarmid avidly) I went to the University of Newcastle to study English Language and Literature. It was there I discovered Chaucer in depth (he sounded like my dad), Dunbar, Henryson, Gavin Douglas and James I. That fired a renewed enthusiasm for writing in Scots. My MA thesis was on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, later published in book form. Whilst teaching at a West London further education college I started to publish Scots (or Lallans) poems in William Cookson’s Agenda magazine, and in small Scottish journals. I still review regularly for Agenda, under Patricia McCarthy’s editorship.

I have had two books of poems published and a translation in Scots verse of the Agamemnon. My plays, poems and reviews appear regularly in Lallans magazine. I have a translation of the Iliad in Scots on my shelf nobody will touch (‘too big’—I like to remind them of Gavin Douglas’s Eneados, to no avail) a verse translation of Sophocles’ Antigone and a version of Racine’s Andromaque in Scots rhyming couplets, still awaiting publishers. I continue to live in England, that may be my sin.

My family were mainly trawlermen and fishwives from Aberdeen (some from Newcastle, some from Yarmouth). My father tried trawling and failed. At fourteen his father took him on a six-week voyage to the Icelandic Waters where my dad lost three stones in weight. My grandmother attacked her husband with a broom when they got home to harbour, shouting, ‘Ye’ve killed the loun! Ye’ve killed the loun!’

I would spend hours staring out my grandparents’ top flat window over the Albert Quay watching the ebb and flow of trawlers. A boat called The Thrift from Hull used to fascinate me (but I think that was a coaler). I am sure that was a name to delight the canny burghers of Aberdeen. I was particularly impressed by the missing middle finger on my grandfather’s left hand, right next to his wedding ring. He had lost it on a loose hawser aboard ship, tugged straight into the North Sea. My grandfather was one of a very few survivors from a trawler that went down off Iceland. He was rescued from a rock by the Reykjavik lifeboat. When he got home he told his wife, ‘I suld niver hae gotten on that boat, Nell’. ‘Weel, o course she suldnae, Frank’ she said, ‘it sunk’. ‘Na, ye dinna unnerstaund, Nell, it was ca’ed The Sturdy’. The tale taught me never to trust words—absolutely.

Lallans then is in my bluid, hert and brain, like the sea, the sky and the earth, the people, inextinguishable. Oil may have replaced fishing, but the spirit lives on.


Sam Milne: Five Poems


And the fishers also sall murn and lament
Isaiah 19.8


Windlasses embedded in thon cliff-face,
Hawsers cuttin the wind.
That’s hou we lived then,
Days we’d bide, oors,
Irkit, waitin for the rain ti lift
Whaur the end-riggs tilt ti the sea
And the road snakes doun the cliff.
A day owerset wi clud, maybe,
The sea a wa o grey aaricht.
We kent a quarry-hole for fish
And set oot ti the watters inbye,
Ropes wi their ain minds
Snorlin and slippin alwayis,
The cluds mackin an even course
Northwart. Up ti the Viking Bank
We gied, and doun ti The Gut,
Maisurin aff a lenth o line
Exact, a boat strang in the beam,
The boxes packed ticht.


Auld ruisted windlasses at the heid o the boats,
Auld deserted cables and hawsers,
The boats wi thair bonnie names:
The Thrift, Sea-Pink, Campion,
Aa gaan, and thair crews wi thaim,
Draain thair breith thick in the frosty air,
A deep morning haar on the cliffs.
Wild wark it was, the fishing,
Man, I tell ye, finger-numbing,
Nails blue wi the cauld;
Hell’s harridans the sea, the waves.
We’re aa dipped in the fishing here, loun,
Lifting the boxes frae the deck
For the mercat in Aiberdeen,
Heid-scarves bricht in the morning,
A hubber o claik and raittle-stanes.
I doot there’s nae furan this, mind.
Aa oor savings is for a heidstane
And bress for the mantelpiece,
Glaid ti be shelterin frae the wind.


Ootwaitin hungry years,
Starin oot the back-kitchie
Days on end, settin a fire in the shed,
The haunds o the fishermen idle
That laboured wi net and creel,
Juist toitin aboot the place
Wi nithing ti dae. It’s a crying shame,
Man, a crying shame,
That’s whit it is –
Engines rotting in thair ile,
Fish-huiks strewn buin the beach,
Aa the lenth o the Low Road,
Aa the wey doun frae the Road-Heid.
The sea, man, the sea –
Thar’s the eye o God!
Aa that toil
Ti put fish on a plate.
We’ve had oor day
And oor day’s wark.
Time ti staump the snaw frae oor feet.

bide: stay    irkit: annoyed   clud: cloud   wa: wall   snorlin: twisting, tangling   gied: went   ruisted: rusted   gaan: gone   haar: sea-mist   mercat: market    hubber: noise, racket
claik: gossip   raittle-stanes: gravel   furan: enduring   toitin: idling   ile: oil


The coorse sea ootlasts aathing,
But flooers pass in a nicht.
The warld’s grouwn owercrubbit:
There’s mair room in a trawler.

coorse tough, cruel   aathing everything   owercrubbit too narrow


i.m. Frank Diack Milne

Whit a nicht ti choose—Burns Nicht!
A Scotsman ti the last.
Here’s a nip ti ye, Granda,
The last, aneath the varnished timmers.

aneath beneath


(the civic motto o Aiberdeen)

Aiberdeen will swalla banes,
Fowk spear for beerials.
Ivery oor pynts the end—
Cauld sea, kist o men,
Licht up the glum granite!

speir: question    pynts: points    kist:chest


Nor’ Nor’-East we sailed,
hauf East fower leagues,
pilan waves,
a lang cable linth frae land:
unloadin grain,
a granite block,
atween neap and spring we hauled.

Waves—strang, stane dykes—
the gaffer
a blockhoose o a man.

Oot o Stornoway we came then
erse-end ferst, superstition-wise,
hame we kept in mind.
(Stars were hid in pooches,
oor heids were fu o sleep.)

‘For God’s sake, cut the line!’
‘Through the Minch we’ll steer her!’
‘Haud the course! There’s time!’
(Fond hope still was rinnan;
hear us ower the brine.
Ti Aiberdeen, Cape Wrath, the Bullers,
guid anchoran left behind.)

pooches: pockets

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