Thursday, December 3, 2009


At bedtime I've been reading out of my copy of The Poems of William Dunbar, that greatest and last (c. 1460-c.1520) of the mediæval Scots poets before the hideous evils of the Scottish Reformation. I like puzzling out the spelling and meaning of the words (aided by a handy glossary).

I can't wait to be in Scotland after Christmas, land of my forefathers (my paternal grandfather's great-grandfather came out to Tasmania from Lanarkshire), and walk the streets that once he walked, and hear somewhat of the accent he spoke and sang and wrote. It also puts me in mind of my maternal grandmother, with her love of tartan - she was a Stewart, married to an Irving...

Here is one of his moralising poems:


Quhat is this lyfe bot ane straucht way to deid,
Quhilk hes a tyme to pas, and nane to duell;
A slyding quheill us lent to seil remeid;
A fre chois gevin to Paradice or Hell;
A pray to deid, quhome vane is to repell;
A schoirt torment for infineit glaidnes,
Als schort ane joy for lestand hevynes.

[What is this life but a straight way to death,
Which has a time to pass, and none to dwell;
A sliding while us lent to seek remedy;
A free choice given to Paradise or Hell;
A prey to death, whom vain is to repell;
A short torment for infinite gladness,
Else short a joy for lasting heaviness.]

(It was normal in Scottish to write "quh-" instead of "wh-"; while my Scottish primary school teacher, Mrs Smith, unsuccessfully tried to get us Aussie kiddies to say "hw" or /ʍ/ for this sound, apparently in Middle Scots it was the far more formidable consonant cluster /xw/, with the initial sound being the velar fricative heard in "Loch".)

(The final "-d" in "-and" is silent, as is "l" after a vowel; and "k" in the North replaces English "ch": so "quhilk" is equivalent to "which".)

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