Violet Jacob and the Sounds of Angus
27th May 2013
The following article first appeared in Scottish Review and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Bob Cant, the author.
I missed the traditional sounds of the countryside when I last visited the Angus farm where I grew up. Back in the days of my childhood people had a close but stormy relationship with the land that they worked; whatever the season, there was always the noise of human activity from all the farms in the neighbourhood; there were also the sounds of birds. Since thenintensive farming and the suburbanisation of the countryside have changed the whole scene. The ploughmen and the shepherds and the craftsmen have been replaced by the commuters and the consultants and the hourly paid labourers; the birds have gone into hiding. The most prominent noise had become the hum of occasional traffic on the B978. I am not one to be nostalgic about the days of clatting neeps in the rain or howking stones out of the ground before the ploughing could begin but my last visit made me feel like an alien on a mission to a strangely silent planet.
A fresh examination of the poetry of Violet Jacob encouraged me to think further about the changing sounds of rural Angus. Violet Kennedy-Erskine was born in 1863 into the family of the lairds of Dun near Montrose; it is said that she learned Scots because she was ‘aye in and oot amo’ the ploomen’s feet.’After her marriage to Major Arthur Jacob, she spent much of her life in India, Egypt and England; their only child died on the Somme and she returned to Kirriemuir where she ended her days in 1946. She became a friend of Hugh MacDiarmid and he included some of her poems in his anthology, Northern Numbers, which was very influential in promoting interest in Scots writing. She never put aside the Scots language and the novelist, John Buchan, said of her: ‘She writes Scots because what she has to say could not be said otherwise and retain its peculiar quality. It is good Scots, quite free from mis-spelt English … above all it is a living speech. The dialect is Angus and in every song there is the sound of the east wind and the rain.’ All her writing conveys a strong sense of connection between people and place; her most successful novel, Flemington, is set in the Montrose area. After her son’s death, she concentrated her literary activity on poetry, despite the fact that it gave her a reputation for being ‘strange’ in the military world where she spent much of her married life.
Her poetry evokes memories and images of a society long gone; a god-fearing society with a strong sense of itself. The image of the sound of the church bell in Tam I’ The Kirk illustrates the ordered nature of communities in Angus before the First World War.
‘O Jean, my Jean, when the bell ca’s the congregation
Owre valley an’ hill wi’ the ding frae its iron mou’,
When a’body’s thochts is set on his ain salvation,
Mine’s set on you.’
The longing expressed in the poem is the longing of one individual for another; whether it is in conflict with the religious values of the day we do not know but, as far as the narrator is concerned, it clearly supersedes them. Many of her poems evoke individual longing and the joy it can bring, as well as the angst. We always sense that the longing of which she writes is felt intensely.
In “The Heid Horseman” we never hear the voice of the apparently taciturn horseman but the poem is resonant with the sounds of his everyday working life and the sense of longing they generate in the woman who loves him.
‘O Alec, up at Soutar’s fairm,
You, that’s sae licht o’ he’rt,
I ken ye passin’ by the tune
Ye whustle i’ the cairt;
I hear the rowin’ o’ the wheels,
The clink o’ haims and chain,
And set abune yer stampin’ team
I see ye sit yer lane.’
Such poems express not only an individual longing but the way they are located within such a specific culture suggests the longing of this poet for the opportunity to speak her own tongue with other people who would understand it as fully as she did.
Many of the poems she wrote refer to birds such as the ‘mavis’ (song thrush) or the ‘whaup’ (curlew). Both are now greatly endangered but their songs were an integral part of the landscape she remembered from her youth. In one poem, The Water-Hen, she even goes to the extent of inventing a dialogue between a water-hen and a narrator who never found a way to express his feelings of longing to the woman he loved
‘When I cam’ hame wi’ the thrang o’ the years ‘ahint me
There was naught to see for the weeds and the lade in spate,
But the water-hen by the dams she seemed aye to mind me,
Cryin’ “Hope – wait!”
“Aye, bird, but my een grow dim, an’ it’s late – late!”
The poem for which Violet Jacob remains most famous is the one celebrating the migration of wild geese. It is often heard in folk clubs as far apart as Lochee or Leytonstone; Jim Reid’s Youtube rendition is particularly popular amongst expatriate Scots. It has been estimated that seven hundred thousand geese fly south to the UK every winter. A fair number of them are heard in Angus in 2013 just as they were when I left home in 1963 or when she wrote these lines in 1913. The countryside has undergone many changes over that period but the sound of the geese remains a constant.
“But saw ye naethin’, leein’ wind, afore ye cam tae Fife?
There’s muckle lyin’ yont the Tay that’s mair to me nor life.’
‘My man, I swept the Angus braes ye haena trod for years –’
‘O Wind, forgie a hameless loon that canna see for tears! ---’
“And far abune the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee.
A lang, lang skein o’ beating wings, wi’ their heids towards the sea,
And aye their cryin’ voices trailed ahint them on the air ----”
“O Wind, hae mercy, haud yer whisht, for I daurna listen mair!”
Bob Cant is the editor of Footsteps and Witnesses: Lesbian and gay lifestories from Scotland.