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Hamish MacDonald's love of birds takes wing in his new book of poems celebrating them in Scots


By Margaret Chrystall

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YOU would think a writer’s natural habitat would be hunched over a laptop at home, but for Hamish MacDonald – like Alexander Wilson, the rare bird of a man who has inspired his latest book – every day he is out in the field or the forest drinking in the birdsong.

For lots of us, lockdown with less traffic noise and bustle on the streets has refocused our attention on the sound of birds as we have remembered what feels so good about outdoors and green spaces.

Maybe Hamish MacDonald’s eyes and ears are more tuned in than most, having written a book of poems that celebrates many of the birds, common and rare, you find in Scotland.

Hamish MacDonald with his book of poems in Scots inspired by Scottish birds and Alexander Wilson's illustrations.
Picture: Gary Anthony
Hamish MacDonald with his book of poems in Scots inspired by Scottish birds and Alexander Wilson's illustrations. Picture: Gary Anthony

And like a step by step journey, from reading a mention of 18th century Alexander Wilson who left Paisley as a weaver and political poet for America and became the godfather of birdwatching there, Hamish’s book grew – once you added his first glimpse of the self-taught Scot’s beautiful bird paintings.

It was seeing Wilson’s nine-volume work American Ornithology that inspired Hamish’s slim volume of poems, Wilson’s Ornithology & Burds In Scots. Both books share Wilson’s paintings and an expert’s knowledge based on observation of how the birds look, their stories, their voices and habits – plus both books have jokes.

Crossbills and the white-crowned bunting. Illustrations with permission from the National Library of Scotland.
Crossbills and the white-crowned bunting. Illustrations with permission from the National Library of Scotland.

Hamish’s book had won the Scots Book Trust Scots Language Award before it was published.

“When I was writing the poems, sometimes it was the names that appealed, or the bird’s characteristics,” said Hamish.

“Or a particular bird would lend itself to a story – like the Red Kite.”

Hamish MacDonald takes a bird-s-eye view. Picture: Gary Anthony
Hamish MacDonald takes a bird-s-eye view. Picture: Gary Anthony

The bird which had died out in Scotland has been successfully reintroduced.

“I made him a Highland chieftain restored to his estate after being absent for so many years!” added Hamish.

“The thrush is upper middle class with a Kelvinside accent.”

Hamish’s posh thrush is ”awfully braw”, “pecking at a croissant” and "Warbling out a song in Charles Rennie MacIntosh letters".

Red flamingo and white flamingo. Illustrations with permission from the National Library of Scotland.
Red flamingo and white flamingo. Illustrations with permission from the National Library of Scotland.

His flamingo is a “circus stilt-walker” known “For grace an yet gangliness/And pure lang-necked dangliness”.

And the heron is “feedin’ on minnas and fisherman’s dreams”.

As well as Scots words adding colour and satisfyingly descriptive sounds to Hamish’s word portraits of his chosen birds, the entertaining and informative book is a great advert for Scots and its power for a younger generation. And from the former first Scots Scriever – or writer – who took on the role for two years from 2015 to act as an ambassador across Scotland for the Scots language, it is the perfect opportunity to help to keep Scots alive and kicking.

Wilson's Ornithology & Burds In Scots.
Wilson's Ornithology & Burds In Scots.

In a writing career that has seen Hamish write novels, poetry, plays with the Highlands’ Dogstar Theatre Company, radio plays and spoken word and comedy sketches with Faultline Cabaret in Invernessas early as 1986, many subjects have taken his attention.

As Hamish puts it – “I think when an idea grows in your mind, it almost grabs you rather than you grabbing it!

“With a poem, it just tends to come from an emotion, or a combination of an emotion and an idea. Or sometimes, something will eat at you so much about what is going on in the world that it might influence your thinking, making you angry or reflective.”

Dogstar Theatre Company’s stage performance of Hamish’s play Factor 9, a hard-hitting, powerful insight into the infected blood scandal, has just been released on DVD.

And Cry Argentina, a play Hamish wrote about his cousin, who went to Argentina in 1978 to watch the Scots football team play with Ally’s Tartan Army – and ended up marrying and staying for 15 years through a dictatorship – has just been rebroadcast and will be available on BBC iPlayer for 10 more days.

It was while based at the National Library in Scotland as Scots Scriever that Hamish first saw Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology.

“I first learned about him in the poet Tom Leonard’s Radical Renfrew published in 1990 about these radical poets. He was a weaver and poet and he became a journeyman packman – or a pedlar selling cloth – he would also collect subscriptions for his poetry book which he published in Scotland.

But I was totally amazed at the whole story of American Ornithology and how he became a naturalist after being a poet and a weaver.

“I’d never seen the books before, so it was an absolute delight. I was just amazed by the amount of work and the ambition and the skill.”

Eider, snow and ruddy ducks. Illustrations with permission from the National Library of Scotland.
Eider, snow and ruddy ducks. Illustrations with permission from the National Library of Scotland.

Wilson travelled thousands of miles across America – 12,000 of them – by foot and horse, dressed in buckskins with his knapsack on his back carrying, brushes and pencils, having to secure subscriptions as he went from people who would pay for him to write and publish each volume.

He may have been the inspiration for The Last Of The Mohicans’ hero Hawkeye. Writer James Fennimore Cooper said the character had been inspired by "A Scotchman called Wilson".

“He was very taken by the democratic ideals of America. He felt nature should be for everyone.”

Over eight years walking America, Wilson identified 268 bird species. In his lockdown walks over the last three months, Hamish has already seen 52 around Inverness.

“Nothing rare,” said Hamish. “But just things that were a joy to see. I was recently in the woods and saw some redpolls, beautiful birds, and the Scots name for them is rose linty. Birds have lovely really descriptive names in Scots,” Hamish said.

“We have a kist o’riches here.”

Wilson’s Ornithology & Burds In Scots, Hamish’s poetry book with illustrations by Alexander Wilson (£9.99 Scotland Street Press) is here: https://scotlandstreetpress.com/product/wilsons-ornithology-and-burds-in-scots and from bookshops. The documentary The Scot Who Stayed in Argentina is on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0b4k9q8 Dogstar Theatre Company’s production of Hamish’s stage play is out on DVD: www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/factor9


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