Document 774

Serendipity and ither poems in Scots and English

Author(s): Sheena Blackhall

Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall


Some poems have been published in Blethertoun Braes, published by Dubusters, 2004. The song ‘The Ghaists o the Nor East Lan’ was written and performed at Thainstone, on October 30th, 2004 at the Tam Reid Memorial Concert organised by the Friends of the Elphinstone Institute, the Aberdeen TMSA and the Bothy King’s family, headed by his widow, Anne. Other poems have featured in ‘The Wisdom of the World’ published by Spotlight Poets, and Canvases 1-12, published by Malfranteaux Fine Art (A Division of Malfranteaux Concepts).

I am deeply indebted to Les Wheeler for publishing this poetry pamphlet, for editing the contents and for designing the cover. Thanks, too, must be extended to my son Ross Blackhall, who accompanied me to Sri Lanka, fending off giant lizards, wild elephants and scorpions. Without his support the venture would not have proceeded.

I acknowledge the assistance of the Special Collections section at Aberdeen University for making "Ferguson's Hand Book for Ceylon & Planting Directory for India & Ceylon 1880-1881" available for reference during their summer break and to the help given by the staff of the National Library of Scotland (Causewayside) who photocopied the map Ceylon: London, E. Stanford, 1882, shelfmark map 1.25.18 which assisted in locating obscure and small plantations.

This book is dedicated to two women, one whom I never met. The first was my maternal grandmother, Lizzie, born on 18th March 1882 near Migvie,Tarland, who lived with my parents for 16 years. Her mother was Helen Craib, from Coull, her father was George Philip from Crathie. My grandmother’s room was a treasure house of eastern nick-nacks, despite never venturing furth of the North East in all of her 83 years.

Her cousin, Catherine Anderson, was born on 26th December 1881 in Maskellya, Ceylon, the daughter of James Anderson, tea planter, and his wife Isabella Craib. Catherine travelled back to Aberdeen university to study medicine, graduating MCCHB in 1904, going on to take the degree of FRCS in Edinburgh in 1921. Dr. James Craib, one of the girls’ uncles, was colonial surgeon in Ceylon and died there aged 64, circa 1919. Another uncle, Alexander Craib was also a tea planter, retiring to Aboyne where he died in 1925 aged 75.

Whilst Catherine was studying medicine in Aberdeen, she stayed in Whitehall Road, near to a local dairy outlet. My grandmother Lizzie came in from the country to act as her housekeeper/companion. The two women were close in age and blood, and quickly became firm friends. My grandmother ‘had her fowk’ as they say, but once her affection was won, it was unstintingly generous. As is the way of things, their lives parted. When Catherine Anderson graduated in 1904, my grandmother married the son of the farmer who ran the dairy at nearby Desswood Place. Catherine went on with the study and practice of medicine. When she later fell ill with cancer, she recognised the early signs and knew the course it would take. My grandmother told me her cousin booked herself onto a cruise heading out to Ceylon, and went ‘missing at sea’ on 12th January, 1934, through an open porthole. I greatly admire her courage.

In 2003 I was invited to sing at the Sidmouth Festival, down on the Devon coast. Walking along the strand, I was accosted by one of the many palmists plying their trade by the seaside. ‘Would you like me to read your cards?’ one wizened specimen asked me. ‘There’s a jolly old lady walking beside you, my dear. Ever so fond of you she be. You be lucky to have someone like that a-trottin on aside you.’ I declined the offer, but wasn’t surprised by the statement. Next to the palmist was a stall with a carved wooden elephant on it, definitely in the trumpeting pose. My grandmother had never visited the land where her cousin was born. The sea was making a hissing sound SSSS…. Serrennnn… deeeeep….Some months passed. Angus Calder, the poet, phoned me up. We started discussing words. ‘Do you know what the root of the word ‘Serendipity is?’ he asked. I replied that I hadn’t the foggiest notion. ‘It’s Serendib’, he told me. ‘Island of Jewels, the old Arab name for Ceylon.’

Next day, I booked passage for Sri Lanka. I like to think when we landed on ‘the pearl that hangs from India’s ear’, that granny came too.

Foreword: S. Middleton

"Ceylon: by C.F.Gordon Cumming of Morayshire(1891)"

And we came to the Isle of Flowers;
Their breath met us out on the seas,
For the Spring and the Middle Summer
Sat each on the lap of the breeze:

And the red passion-flower to the cliffs,
And the dark-blue clematis, clung;
And starred with myriad blossoms,
The long convolvulus hung.’

Marco Polo described Sri Lanka as the most beautiful island in the world. In the Thousand and One Nights, Sinbad the sailor speaks of it as ‘the place to which Adam was banished out of Paradise. Here are found rubies and many precious things, and rare plants grow abundantly, with cedar trees and cocoa palms.’ The Romans called it Taprobane, whilst to the Moors it was Serendib, the root of the word serendipity, as Angus Calder pointed out, ‘the art of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.’ The Portuguese called it Ceilao, the Dutch restyled it Ceylan, and the British renamed it Ceylon. In the Singhalese language, the island is Sri Lanka, its official name since 1972.

The British influence is still very evident, largely through the preponderance of Scots and English place names in the hill country and the widespread use of English throughout the land. In 1815 Britain took control of the kingdom of Kandy, extending this rule to the entire island. From 1832 onwards, property laws disadvantaged the Singhalese people, allowing British settlers to own and establish coffee plantations. However blight in the 1870s decimated that crop, and the planters quickly switched to tea or rubber. The British hired Tamil workers from South India, transporting them onto the tea estates in large numbers. Many of the British were North East Scots.

Marjory Harper in "Adventurers and Exiles": (pp 101-102 (i) & page 286(ii) ) has this to say on the subject of North East Scots in Ceylon:

(i)‘Most (Scots) arrived in Ceylon during the 1830s and 1840s, when the coffee mania was at its height and a disproportionate number came from Aberdeen and its hinterland, some via earlier employment in the East India Company.’…‘95% of the overseers on Ceylon’s coffee plantations were Scots, 50% of that number were said to be Aberdonian.’

(ii) Many of the handsome granite mansions that sprang up in the city’s west end testified to fortunes made in eastern plantations and in 1875 a dinner of planters and ex-planters held in Aberdeen…attracted over 100 men, half of whom had current or past commercial connections with Ceylon.’

My grandmother’s cousin, Catherine Anderson was born in Maskelyia in 1881, on the plantation named Deeside. Her mother, Isabella Craib, was born at Strathmore, Coull, Deeside. In 2000 the Scots had gone but the name Deeside remains, with troubled undertones. On the World Socialist Web Site ( an article by Vijitha Silva appeared on 15th Feb 2000:

‘Police harassment and intimidation has also intensified in the plantation areas such as Kandy, Hatton, Maskelyia, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Bandarawela, Passara, Matugama - which are in the hill districts of Central Sri Lanka where the majority of estate workers are Tamil speaking.’

Silva went on to name the Deeside estate as one area where arrests had been made of a suspected terrorist activist, though the detainee strenuously denied any involvement with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: fighting for a separate Tamil state). We travelled to the hill country in October 2004, but went from Colombo via Kitulagal to the old British hill station of Nuwara Eliya, within a few miles of Deeside, close to the Aberdeen Falls. The road twists and turns round dizzying drops through terraces of tea rising up into the clouds, flanked by tall palms with huge cataracts tumbling into the jungle below. The road is currently under construction by the Chinese who are helping to bolster the Sri Lankan economy, as are the Thais, who share the common bond of Buddhism. Although there has been a terrorist cease-fire in Sri Lanka for three years, it would have been foolhardy to venture off the main route without the services of a local guide, so Deeside, Sri Lanka, remains a name on the map.

Around the time that the Andersons were running the estate in Maskelyia, fortunes for the speculative Scot were looking favourable. The Pall Mall Budget, March 13th 1891 (From CC. Gordon Cumming p17) reported:

‘An Enormous Price for Ceylon Tea.’
‘Unusual excitement prevailed on Tuesday in Mincing Lane, on the offering by Messrs Gow, Wilson and Stanton, tea-brokers, in public auction, of a small lot of Ceylon tea from the Gartmore estate in Maskelyia (Mr. T.C.Anderson). This tea possesses extraordinary quality in liquor, and is composed almost entirely of small ‘golden tips’, which are the extreme ends of the small succulent shoots of the plant, and the preparation of such tea, is, of course, most costly…The bidding which was pretty general to start with, commenced with an offer of £1.1s per 1lb…the tea ultimately knocked down to the ‘Mazawatte Ceylon Tea Company’ at the most extraordinary and unprecedented price of £10.12s 6d per 1lb.’

My grandmother’s second uncle, Alexander Craib (born at Strathmore, Coull) was listed in 1881 as being based at Cabragalla estate in Haputale, though he later moved to Invery estate in Dickoya. Alexander amassed a considerable fortune before retiring to Deeside, and it is not hard to see why. In his book on William Somerville, the pioneer tea broker, Maxwell Fernando describes the first Tea Auction on 30th July 1883 in Colombo Fort… (pp9-13) ‘This procedure was almost a heretical deviation from the concept of a fixed price agreed upon between the producer and the buyer, a concept in existence during trading dating back to the Portuguese and Dutch occupation…The first lot of 999 pounds that was described in the catalogue as ‘Kabaragalla unsorted’, packed in 50lb chest was sold for 45 cents per pound..In the marketing of Sri Lanka produce it was the first time that the gavel had come down to conclude a contract of sale, and with it the authority of the gavel had been established.’

A third uncle, Dr James Craib (MBCM Aberdeen 1876, MD Aberdeen 1881) was district surgeon for Ambagamuwa and Kotmale, between 21-25 miles from Kandy, approximately 95 miles from Colombo. Detailed information on Ceylon at that time is to be found in Ferguson's Hand Book for Ceylon & Planting Directory for India & Ceylon 1880-1881, from which following extracts have been taken:

[CENSORED: table removed]
Where some trail blaze, others follow. The Craib planters’ young nephews left Deeside to enter the world of tea and Tamils. Two brothers, David and John Middleton, travelled to Ceylon, to join their Ballater cousin John Stewart and his wife Victoria who also managed a plantation in the region. David (1900-1967) retired to Aberdeen in 1947, as Ceylon prepared for Independence. Middleton’s estate was Epalawae, in Kagale.

Travelling to Nuwara Elyia is like taking a surreal tour around the North East of Scotland and beyond. There is Hatton, Faithlie, Strathdon, Lonach. There is Aberdeen, Abbotsford and Kennilworth. After passing Edinburgh to a chorus of swinging monkeys, you arrive at the old hill station itself. Here, you will find Victoria Park, a racecourse, a golf course, neat rows of bungalows growing roses, leeks and cauliflowers. The post office is red brick with a cheery Roman numeral clock face. The climate is sunny, pleasant and cool, like a real British summer, a relief after the heavy heat of Colombo, and the Hill Club itself uncannily resembles an ageing hotel in the Scottish Highlands. The last named president was a G. Middleton in 1970. There are two excellent prints by Farquharson of Finzean. There are the inevitable stuffed and mounted stags’ heads, complete with glassy eyes. A decapitated leopard and a mournful water buffalo flank them. There is a ladies’ door, and a dress code for dinner. The hill club still retains reciprocal members ties to London clubs.

The enterprising Victorian artist C.C. Gordon Cummings explored Nuwara Eliya’s burial ground in 1891, and had this to say of a specific gravestone:

‘One had a very peculiar interest, having been riven asunder by lightning, which, strange to say, was also the cause of the death of him whose body rests here- namely, Major Rogers of the Ceylon Rifles, of whom the stone records that he was ‘Stricken to death in the Happootalle Pass on 7th June 1845, aged 41 years.’

She goes on to note that Rogers recorded shooting 1,300 elephants, but added that it was known that he killed at least another 300. Until 1840 it was apparently normal for man to have killed an average of 100 elephants.

I asked our local guide what the Sri Lankans thought of the British. He particularly mentioned Major Rogers, and said that not only did lightning kill him, but also twice a bolt had struck his grave from Thor. Sri Lankans have a complex relationship with elephants. The tusker who carries the holiest Buddhist relic in the East, the tooth of Buddha, which reposes at the Buddhist temple in Kandy, is, we were told, always a high caste elephant. Since the death of Raja, who carried the tooth for 55 years during its annual procession round the city, the monks have scoured Asia seeking out suitable elephants to perform the task. Seven young elephants have been identified as being of high enough caste to eventually vie for the honour of carrying the tooth.

Elsewhere, huge national parks have been created to ensure the animals’ survival, with elephant corridors built to cross through farmland. Farmers and wild elephants make uneasy neighbours. Elephants often travel at dusk, and occasionally farmers are killed in altercations between them. We stopped to watch one exchange north of Kandy. A sack of rice had dropped from a lorry, and a wild elephant had sniffed out the rice. Nearby villagers, too, were hungry.

Dark descends quickly in Sri Lanka where the day is always neatly split into 12 hours dark, then light. Apart from the car lights, the moon and the villager’s lamps, it was pitch black, and the sky was intermittently shot through with the savage lightning so common in the inter-monsoonal nights. For some time the elephant charged from the jungle, furiously trumpeting and challenging the village boys, whilst they in turn clattered tins and pans in an attempt to scare it off. When the guide sensed a lull in the proceedings, he hurriedly drove off before the elephant re-emerged from the jungle to stake its claim. We heard later, the elephant had won the rice, dragging it into the depths of the jungle where the villagers wouldn’t dare to follow it.

It was difficult to assess the standard of living in the country. In such a fruitful, fertile place there seemed to be no shortage of food. Our guide explained that western supermarkets are fairly recent, and that only upper middle class people use them, or the very wealthy. Ordinary Sri Lankans mistrust them, he said, and they are also extremely expensive compared to the open-stalled shacks vending fruits by the roadside. However, on the World Socialist Web Site ( Vilani Peiris wrote in an article dated 28/8/2002:

‘The 2000 agreement left the daily pay of a tea plantation worker at just 121 rupees.’ (A rough guide to current exchange rate is 200 rupees= £1.00).

Today the ethnic constitution of the country is roughly as follows: 74% Singhalese, 12% Tamil, 6% Indian Tamil, 7% Moor, 0.5% Malay (Muslims) and 0.5% Burgher (of European origin). 70% are Buddhist, 161% Hindu, 7% Christian, & 7% are Muslim. I encouraged the guide to talk a little about Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Although he was respectful concerning the large temples of monks, he said that the most venerated of Buddhist priests were those who lived in the forest. In such a short trip it was impossible to make contact with the forest monks of the country, but there is a book describing such a way of life, ‘Twenty-five Years of Life in the Jungle’ by the Venerable Thambugala Anandasiri Thero. Published in 2000, it makes interesting reading:

‘But friends, I live in the jungle…There is no weapon to beat the robe and the bowl, to a follower of the Buddha, see, these are the only possessions I have….We have no money. Nor do we own land, estates, or any other forms of wealth. We do not intentionally harm even an animal. Maithri is nothing but caring for another and being friendly. May you have good friends….As for us, everyone is a friend. Extending this friendship to all living beings is what is known as practising ‘maitri bhavana.’

Our guide, Ajith Perere, had never met a Scottish Buddhist, and asked me several times to chant the triple refuge in Pali, taking me to meet the monks at the Temple of the Tooth to receive a special blessing, and again, interpreting for me with the monks who officiate over the shrines at the Bodhi tree, for a second blessing at one of the most sacred sites of the Buddhist world, scarred by terrorist bullets only three years previously.

‘There!’ he said triumphantly as the priest knotted the cotton thread round my wrist, and placed his thumb on my forehead. ‘You’re doubly blessed now!’
At the gates of the Bodhi Tree shrine at Anuradhapura, the Sri Lankans have erected the following translation in English :

Great Arahath Mahinda to King Dewanampiyatissa at Mihintale, 250BC.

‘Your majesty, the birds that glide the skies and animals that roam the forest have an equal right to live and move anywhere in this country, as you have. The land belongs to the people and all other living beings. You are only its trustee.’

Even the infantry soldiers build Buddhas, huge, serene, concrete, outside their barracks. More mysterious, though were the weird scarecrow dummies, hung from walls and outhouses. In Britain, such things are only seen in the fields. Ajith explained that people see them as charms to ward off demons. In the forests, there are those who still perform ceremonies to exorcise demons, with sacrifice and magic. I tried to imagine what life would have been like for a girl growing up in Ceylon at the end of the nineteenth century. Eventually, we found a bookshop in Colombo, and I found a book by Leonard Woolf. Born in 1880, a London Jew, he went to Ceylon in 1904 as a cadet in the civil service, overseeing malarial jungle in Hambantota. Subsequently, he wrote ‘The Village in the Jungle’, dedicated to his wife, Virginia Woolf. Devils were very much a feature of life then, as now:

‘Little toad! Why have you left the pond? Isn’t there food there for your little belly? Rice and coconuts and mangoes and little cakes of kurakkan? Is the belly full, that you have left the pond for the jungle? Foolish little toad! The water is good, but the trees are evil. You have come to a bad place of dangers and devils…the devils are very angry in the jungle, for there has been no rain now for these three months.’

Another little book from the Colombo Bookstore confirmed that devils were something of a local problem. In ‘Demon worship and other superstitions in Ceylon’, published in Madras by the Christian Vernacular Education Society in 1891, it is observed that there is a saying that a wooden vessel long retains the flavour of the liquid with which it was first filled. Most Singhalese still cling to demon worship, the original superstition of the island. From the Tamils they learned the worship of the Hindu gods; astrology and Buddhism were also introduced.

The ancient ruined Buddhist capitals to the North of the hill country fascinated my son, in particular the sophistification of their engineering. Two perfectly carved stone feet remain above the stone latrine, marking the place where the monks would squat to excrete. C.C. Gordon Cumming in the 1890s was similarly moved on encountering these ancient cities:

‘How strange it is to think that when our ancestors sailed the stormy seas in their little skin-covered wicker boats, or paddled canoes more roughly hollowed from trees than those quaint outriggers which here excite our wonder, Ceylon was the chief centre of Eastern traffic, having its own fleet of merchant ships, wherein to export…its superfluous grain- certainly other products- to distant lands! Possibly its traffic may even have extended to home, to whose historians it was known as Taprobane, and of whose coins as many as 1800 of the reigns of Constantine and other emperorors has been found at Batticaloa.’

The only Sri Lankan shrine I shirked from exploring, was the towering rock of Sigirya. In the blistering heat, Ross climbed it (Vertigo would have held me back, as well as the stifling heat) and when he returned I was relieved I’d remained at the foot. He is, however, an experienced mountaineer, and very fit.
‘Have you heard of the Mexican wave phenomenon?’ he asked me. I hadn’t.

‘Well, huge swarms of wild hornets hang below the rock all the way up, and they ripple like waves. There are signs all the way up, warning folk not to make any loud noise or commotion. Ajith said that last month 200 people were attacked by swarms on Sigirya, and many were hospitalised.’
Other Europeans came off the rock the colour of a dripping cherry. I thought of a poem I’d read in Modern Sri Lankan Poetry, an Anthology by D. Goonetilleka Sri Satguru Publications, published in 1987. Tourist was written by Peter Scharen in 1967, but seemed quite apt at Sigirya. Here is an extract:

Tourist, baboon-red and puffing in the heat,
Inscrutable, smiling in the streets of Fort,
What wound in the head of proud cities
Drove you to abort
Into tropic sun and our historic hills?
The half-truths of the ads got you-
There is your purse and we have our poor:
Cops never beat you for information…
You wear your embassy like a giant ball-less sex organ
Wet with courtesy…

Lies for liars, tourist. Enthuse
Over fallen pillars and shit-smeared beach,
Grow sick in your bowels as you adventure,
Make one slip, wandering in your patent-leather shoes
In some cut-off-the-line-nook
And get a knife in your gut.’

Interestingly, Scharen immigrated to Australia where he continued to write poetry whilst working for the Tax Department in Sydney, aborting his historic hills for a better standard of living, I suspect, and who can blame him for that?

The Scots sculptor, Kenny Hunter, exhibited a piece entitled ‘Bad Conscience and the Old Skool Plastik 2000, with the inscription ‘Finis Gloria Mundi’ (End of Wordly Glory). Hunter refers to the collective guilt we experience over colonial conflict. Instead of trumpeting the glory days, Hunter’s sculpture is a literal carve up, a pile of money, skulls and bones and empty gun cartridges, white as ivory.

So how did it feel to walk a mile or two in my kinsmen’s footsteps, those North East Scots that laid the planks of the Empire? I think that for some of the time they must have been homesick, fever-struck and not to put too fine a point on it, occasionally terrified. There would have been times, too, surrounded by the amazing beauty and fertility of that tropical land, when for a moment it really was ‘home’. But in a thousand years or so, it will be ancient city of Anuradhapura that still stands, I suspect, rather than the Hill Club at Nuwara Elyia, gradually fading into the shadowy pages of history.

"Adventurers and Exiles". Marjory Harper 2003. Profile Books Ltd, London. Page 101-102 (i) & page 286(ii)
"Demon worship and other superstitions in Ceylon" : first published in Madras by the Christian Vernacular Education Society 1891
"Ferguson's Hand Book for Ceylon & Planting Directory for India & Ceylon 1880-1881": A.M. & J. Ferguson, Colombo. Printed by the Ceylon Observer Press, Colombo (held by the Special Collections, Aberdeen University)
"Modern Sri Lankan Poetry", an Anthology: D. Goonetilleka Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi 1987
"Pall Mall Budget, March 13th 1891"
"Sri Lanka". Richard Plunkett and Brigitte Ellemor. Lonely Planet Publications. London 2003
"The Village in the Jungle": Leonard Woolf. Oxford University Press 2004
"Twenty five Years of Life in the Jungle": Venerable Thambugala Anandasiri Thero. Translated by Kamala Rajapakse, published by Dayawansa Jayakody & Company Sri Lanka 2000
"Two Happy Years in Ceylon": Volume 1: C.F. Gordon Cumming, Sooriya Publishing, Sri Lanka, 2004 (Originally written circa 1891)
"William Somerville, the pioneer tea broker": by Maxwell Fernando, Hokandara, Sri Lanka, 2000
World Socialist Web Site ( article by Vilani Peiris 28/8/2002
World Socialist Web Site ( article by Vijitha Silva 15/2/2000

Contents :
Traffic incident
Mount Lavinia
A Song of Two Islands
The Tea Estate
Nuwara Eliya
Major Rogers
The Michie Machine
Kandy at the Citadel Hotel
In the Botanical Gardens, Kandy
The Savage Celt
Tinkee the Porcupine
Raja’s Song
Boating on the Lake
Head Massage
Tea Ceremony
Solitary Bather
Visiting the Orphanage
Monkey King
Preparing to meet the Beloved
Aside the Lagoon
In the Tropics
On Safari
At the Bodhi Tree
At the Lion Rock, Sigiriya
Check Point
Overheard in the Zoo
In the Shadow of Sri Pada
Arabian Nights
At the Hinnereyn
North Sea Rig
Chinaman’s Kite
Fish on a Tree
A Small Welsh Hill
Lullaby of the Birds
Dark Night of the Hen
Cock Crow
Bird Man
Of Quills and Angels
Waiting for a god to come along
The Annunciation of the Egg
Forget me not
A Mercedes Hubcap
Pipe Dream
No Man’s Land
What’s in your Handbag Honey?
Feeding Frenzy
The Green an Pleisunt Lan
The Ghaists o the Nor East Neuk
Faither an Son
The Knotted Tie
Gweed Coonsel tae a Frien
A Warlock Visits the Doctor
The Bogles’ Ceilidh at Blethertoun Kirkyaird
Love bubble
The Castlegate Unicorn Speaks
This Braif Toon

Traffic Incident

Madame, these three wheeled tuk-tuks
Should be banned!
Always in such a flurry!
Last trip, no kidding, one pulled out in front to overtake
Too late to brake (Family of five from the airport crammed inside)
Straight under a lorry’s wheels! Flat as an old tin lid!
Body parts everywhere. Road a river of blood
Everywhere, too much hurry!

There’s a fire ahead, we’ll drive around.
A motorbike in flames…a Honda pyre
Is that a boot I see? Don’t look! Don’t look!
Where are the ambulances and the police?
Not your concern, Madame, why spoil your holiday?
See…shop boys come with pails,
It’s not our worry.

Mount Lavinia, (former British governor’s mansion)

Sipping iced tea beside the outdoor pool
(Blue’s a sapphire, clearer than a tear)
Is an excellent view of Colombo’s sweeping bay.
Coconut palms like raffia matting frayed by many feet
Wallop the heat. The Indian Ocean beats
Its dirty washing on the beach.

Rag pickers strip the rocks of shirts and saris
Imported by the tide, free hand-me-downs
Plucked by the waves from Pondicherry, maybe, or Madras

The breeze is fragrant. Germans, British smile
Waiters bow and circulate with trays.
In the British governor’s mansion
300 dollars a night buys a bug free bed
And a flunky wearing Kaiser Wilhelm’s hat.
Crows dine first class unhindered, off fat pickings
Unhassled by the staff. This is a Buddhist country

Hard by the beach, the trains run punctually
The human cargo packaged like sardines,
Hangs from the window gulps what it can of air


Waves topple like skittles down the beach
A gecko is the room’s unpaying guest
Sinbad sailed these seas by such a moon
The old colonial bed stands on stiff legs

A gecko is the room’s unpaying guest
The hotel writing paper’s wafer thin
The old colonial bed stands on stiff legs
Banjo the one-eyed dog howls for a bone

The hotel writing paper’s wafer thin
Catamarans hunt tuna round the bay
Banjo the one-eyed dog howls for a bone
Tropical lightning cleaves the night in two

Catamarans hunt tuna round the bay
Waves topple like skittles down the beach
Tropical lightning cleaves the night in two
Sinbad sailed these seas by such a moon

A Song of Two Islands

Neep an tattie, ingin, leek
Frost pits roses in yer cheek
Geans an aipples on the bough
Heilan kye an wolly yowe

Ginger, nutmeg, cardamom
Pepper mace an cinnamon
Tea an rubber, fenugreek
Rice an rubies, saffron teak

Piz meal brose an Cullen skink
Chips wi Irn Bru tae drink
Boozer, bingo haa, computer
Larry, TV, wirk-commuter

Passion fruit an papaya
Melon, limes, malaria
Elephants an wud monsoons
Coconuts an big baboons

Seagull, spurgie, blackie, doo
Microwave an pouered ploo
Bairns that’s niver kent a da
Diets, stress, bulimia

Tuk-tuks fire waukers an snakes
Lagoons, leeches, lotus, lakes
Buddhist, scorpions, buffalo
Rabies, demons, sweet mango

Misty bens an cweelin breeze
Wauchtin saftsome ben the trees
Watterfaas that’s like wir ain
Mak Sri Lanka hame fae hame.

The Tea Estates
(On the Colombo-Nuwara-Eliya roa, via Kitulagala. The estate names in bold are actual Scottish place names still seen from the road)

As I cam doon bi Ythanside I saw a fruit bat hingin
Twis barbequed bi pouer lines far bamboo trees war swingin

As I cam ower bi Logie’s braes the tea pickers war thrang
Roon Hatton toon they aa booed doon the Earl Grey amang

They pued the leaves at Kennilworth an roon bi Abbotsford
Claikin in tamil dialect sae I kent feint a wird

While in the car the driver-chiel newsed constantly o cricket
A watter buffalo in dubs wis battin flees mid-wicket.

We skirted Deeside’s misty braes nae far fae Lonach lan
Till hashin on bi braid Strathdon tae Edinburgh cam

A cobra hunkered up its heid far Aiberdeen cowps doon
An roon bi Faithlie, pelicans flew ben the gaitherin gloom

The rich reid stoor o Serendip is mony the Scotsman’s shroud
At rainbow’s eyn they rest at last, fae chasin furreign gowd.

Nuwara Eliya (City of Light)

Fit’s it like in the lan o tea an roses?
Mochy corridors, bat keech glaurs the waas.
At ilkie neuk, ye think tae catch a glisk
O some lang-deid colonial planter’s wife
Ficherin wi pearls, poorin oot the gin.
Hard on the ootskirts, shacks o wid an tin
Sell fruit an ingins, tatties, neep an leeks
A butcher wi twa teeth, stauns, knife in haun.
Ahin him, flees hug meat hung fae a hook
Tattiebogles guaird, nae parks, bit fowk
Tae fleg coorse jungle demons fae the toun.
Termite mounds, whaur ooto sicht an soun
Mongoose an cobra fecht their deadly war
Stags heads, deid orchids dwinin in a jar
Aabody smiles an says the Tamil Tigers
Are peaceful noo, that strife is aa ahin them
The quaet termite mound gies nocht awa.
Photies o Brits in full-rigged evenin dress
Elephant feet umbrella stands, nearhaun
Rifles an kills recordit, tae impress
Tennis coort intrigues, gowf, neth misty Bens
Auld Frozen Mutton’s peintins roon the waa
Deeside’s bunnet lairds in palm-tree glens
Hill station jist like Kent or Banchory
Windsor, Ascot, braw Victoria Park
Tudor an Georgian hooses, Earl Gray tea.
Weel wattered lawns, rose buss an mellow sun
Mossy gravesteens tell in hidden howes
Foo mony Scots hae fertilized this grun.

Major Rogers
Major Rogers logged the killing by his own rifle of 1,200 elephants. However, the estimate is nearer 1,600. He was killed by lightening and is buried at Nuwara Eliya, where his grave has twice been struck by lightning since his interment.

Here lies Major Rogers
Fa thocht it sport tae sheet
Hunners o hermless elephants
He cudnae even eat

His hauns war reid an gory
Like ithers fa hae sodjered
The endin o his story?
Twice bi lichtenin he wis Rogered.

The Michie Machine

The Michie Machine is situated in Mackwood’s tea factory, established in 1841. Mackwood’s currently manages 27,000 acres of plantation, comprising 17 tea and rubber plantations. The tea is hand plucked, unblended, single estate high grown tea from the Labookellie estate, 2,000 metres above sea level in the clouds of Nuwara Eliya. Strathdon and Lonach estates are part of the Mackwood tea empire.
James Taylor was the Scottish plantation manager who first planted 80 hectares of tea in 1867 at Loolecondra estate Ceylon. Today, the country produces 22% of world exports

A well-honed operation, the Michael Machine
Leaves not one possible margin for human error
Through at least three generations
It has never blotted its copybook at all.
Guiding, grading, assessing
It turns out tea fit for the world market
As the well-schooled company rep goes through her paces
Method of plucking, grades, and types and costs,
I am frantically trying to gage to the nearest rupee
What’s the current rate of exchange from dollar?
What to tip without appearing mean?

Numbers swarm like hornets in my ears
Unlike the Michie Machine my works are faulty
Nuts and bolts of sums misfire and go awry
The Michie Machine looks down. It’s never wrong.
Almost, I hear it sigh.

Kandy: At the Citadel Hotel

Like kingfishers alert and keen
The waiters stand in mauve sarongs
With cumber bands of white or green
Ruled by the clang of dinner gongs

Small gods with their almighty dollar
Plump Europeans brandish tips
Gone are the days of tie and collar
These days its t-shirt package trips

Firewalkers tread a trench of coals
The flames leap skyward, red and stark
To conch shells bellow, and drum rolls
Like Satan's imps across the dark

The guests applaud. The lightning rips
The water bag that holds the night
On honeymoon, ten grooms unzip
Their whey-faced brides, and grip them tight

This is their moment for romance
Those newly-weds from Slough or Fife
Before the treadmill of the kids
The weekly shop. The mortgaged life
The earth does shake in the monsoon
Even for brides from Hull, or Troon.

In the Botanical Gardens, Kandy

Come and snap the scorpion! Quick, Madame!
Rupee and picture do an instant trade
The tourist scorpion always on parade
Park keeper’s park to supplement his pay.
Lovers hold hands and kiss
In this pleasure gardens of queens
The Mahaweli river skirts around.

Hungover monkeys, comatose with heat
Slump over branches, toes and tails down dangling
Their leader topples a bin, prises the lid ajar
Then disappears inside this leavings-larder
For take-aways to feed his screeching tribe.
Fruit bats drip from the fig trees looking furtive.
Deep in the shade of bushes I almost touch
A spider, like a breast-brooch made by Cartier
Deadly as napalm, shining in its web

The Savage Celt
Kandy is a university city with many feeder schools. Sri Lankan secondary pupils all wear uniform. Invariably, teenage girls wear their hair in long, heavy pigtails. White cotton dresses reach below the calf and short white socks complete the outfit. In groups the girls are shy and giggling. Boys wear shorts and cotton shorts and are often seen carrying a short wooden plank and a stone to practise cricket

Nae winner the Auncient Romans nearly fyled thirsels wi fleg!
Oor savage Celts cud skail mair bluid than a supersonic gleg!
Wi hair that’s spiked like hedgehog’s prods, aa pierced, tattooed an peintit
Ae gweed gaun luik at a wud Celts plook an twinty legions feintit!

On illicit booze they’re quick tae roose.
They skreich, they curse they skirl
They hunt in packs, they dish oot slaps
Wad makk even a mammoth dirl

It’s a gey brave body that hauds the road
Fin the clock chimes ten by fower
Fur thon’s the time the Academy throws open wide its door.

Tinkee the Porcupine

Far ye have a kittlin, a dug or a moose
Kanthi’s got a porcupine pet in her hoose
It’ll pose fur its photo: ‘Twa hunner rupees?’
An withoot bein telt, at the flash it says ‘cheese’

Raja’s song
The Temple of the tooth in Kandy, Sri Dalada Maligawa, dates from 1687. It houses the most sacred relic in the Buddhist world, a tooth said to have been snatched from Buddha’s funeral pyre. A high caste elephant is chosen to carry and parade the tooth at an ancient ceremony which has been held for 2,000 years. The most famous Maligawa tusker in recent times to perform the task was Raja who carried the tooth for 55 years. He was mourned throughout the country on his death in 1988 and his body preserved and kept within the temple bounds.

Ten days in August’s sweltering heat
Ponderously I stately swing
White linen laid before my feet

Where dancers whirl to rhythmic beat
Of drum, I walk the tooth to bring
Forth to the crowds on cushioned seat

The monks and devotees I meet.
Petals of scented flowers they fling
The relic of the shrine to greet

The air is filled with incense sweet
Pearls to my gold umbrella cling
Thousands applaud me in the street

The scarlet banners furl and pleat
Orchids, like birds go fluttering
And every bowl with alms replete

I am the chosen. A short leet
Reduced to one. My neck bells ring
With pride at conch shells’ welcome bleat

Night of the full moon! Torches leap
Saddu they cry. Small fireflies wing
My glory over, task complete

The curtains part, the Heavens weep
The short walk of a brief godling
Back to my stall. The dark is deep

Boating on the Lake, Kandy

It’s an October day. In Scotland, chilled by frost
The loyal robin shivers, others flee the coop.
Already Christmas tills ring up the cost

The boatman pushes the small craft off the mooring
We glide like ghosts into the man-made lake
100 chiefs who raised dissent at its building
Were killed by their last mad king
Each one impaled on a stake,
Driven into the bedrock of this place
Doubly killed by skewering and drowning.

No bubbles rise in wrathful lamentation
Under the dark umbrella of the trees
Fruit bats hang like flags of Dracula
We float past distant walls of sacred shrines
Where shoeless pilgrims shuffle past the relics
Blessed by the shaven monks in saffron robes
The engine stalls, boat anchors, monsoon spits
Stepping up to the shore we pass a speechless cripple
He smiles, shows off his leg
Elephantiasis. He lets his sickness beg.

Head Massage: Shirasa Taila VimardhanaAyuraveda massage

The brass pot is suspended overhead
I must lie still, beneath the scented oil
A neck stand is supplied, a towelled bed

It’s guaranteed all worries to erase
Hitting my temples in a steady stream
Of oil, kept running through the punctured base.

There’s not a breath of wind. All here is calm
The pot’s swayed back and fore by the masseuse
Across my brow, the oil a constant balm

Treat for the brain, lady, to let it rest
I’m drifting in and out of a light sleep
Being anointed feels like being blest

I see a young mahout as I walk out
His elephant, stretched lazy in the river
Bathing its sides with water from a spout

It shuts its eyes, as stroking its old skin
Its master tries to smooth away its aches
Like making silver from a rusty tin
There’s not a breath of wind. All here is calm
And gentle, as the hum of an old psalm.

The 19th century British Prime Minister William Gladstone said ‘if you are cold tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.’

Blin-drift furls roon the steadins
Nowt chaw their new-hashed neeps,
Their strang braith rikks like twinty bylin kettles.
Slivvers hing frae the sides o each sappy moo

The collie hoggin the seat ower in the hoose
Cocks up his lugs at the turn o the ootbye key,
Lowps onno the fleer wi a cheery wallopin tail
His maister’s buits dunt snaa abeen the rug

The fermer’s dowpit doon. The tea’s brocht ben,
Aywis the same fite mug,
The speen left in, near staunin up itsel
Wi the wecht o fower sugars, tarry bree.
He raxxes in his pooch fur the fusky flask
Cowps ae stiff jeelip in an steers it weel.

Draas Capstan full strength ooto his dungarees
Taps oot a smoke, kinnles a spunk
Syne sooks a lang waucht in,
Hoasts aince an pyocvhers a gob o glut
Inno the spirkin fire, heists the mug tae his moo
Wi fingers braid as puddens, brooned wi rikk.

Takks the first sip, sighs, raxxes, eyn o day
Darg feenished, he enjoys his strang Birse-tay.

Solitary Bather
(River Maha Oya)

After the elephants left, their fans in tow
Ooing and aaing at babies, or bull’s erections
The public bathing session done and dusted,
Tables at the café lost all their trade,
Beggars and hawkers chased their human prey.
Even the chipmunks vanished into the trees
Behind thin-legged mahouts in torn vests.

River and jungle merged again as one
Churned by the monsoon into coils of mud
Waves rolled over hotly in the sun
Like heavy pages in a weighty book.

A girl in a scarlet sari stepped from the palms
Like a butterfly floating up on fragile wings
Waded into the water up to her waist
Laughing at something or nothing.
She tipped her head back to the turning waves
And with a brass bowl scooped the pool like grain
Again and again the bright drops fell on her breasts
A noon-day shining, a shower of golden rain
Alive in her youth like a flame.
The sari bobbing round, a sailing poppy
Such joy she showed in that primordial act
Lifting her lean brown arms to greet the sun

Visiting the Orphanage

Abandoned down a village well,
The two year old, Suppumalee
Has come to learn some basic words,
Pic cit, and Ida and Hari

Neela, the oldest shakes his head,
Wary, for not all men are friends
They may pretend to care but can
Abuse your trust for other ends

Sama is six years old and lame
A landmine took away a limb
But she can hop and she’s alive
And oh the joy to see her swim!

Raja is blind. A single shot
Robbed him of sight. Such cruelty
In war zones is the common lot
He nods, in mute servility.

A mother killed by drought or gun
The left ear eaten from the head
By prowling leopard, rescued now
The six-week old is bottle fed

We all lose parents, late or soon
Are orphaned, every mother’s son
But seldom by the mindless act
Of terrorist or poacher’s gun

The tourists flock to see the herd
A happy ending’s worth the cost
Forgetting for a moment that
For one that’s saved, a hundred’s lost.

Eager to reach the orphanage
We blank the beggars of the place
The withered flea-infested sage
The cripple’s dumb, accusing face.

The Elephant orphanage near Kegalle, at Pinnawala was founded in 1975 on nine hectares of coconut plantation. From the original 7 orphans, the herd has grown to 62, with others being regularly added who for various reasons cannot survive in the wild. Mahouts speak ‘elephant language’, around 50 words of commands that elephants understand. Hari is pick up, pic cit is let go, ida is give way.


Up tae the oxters in glaury dubs
The watterbuffalo yarks the ploo
Yoked tae the will o the fermin chiel
Fin he cries wheep, its Micht maun boo.

An boo it dis, as it breenges on
A muckle breet wi its wudness tame
Like a fire that’s kept in a crofter’s hairth
(Foo cauld, thon crafttie withoot the flame)
Warsslin on baith breet an man
Daein the darg tae full their wame

Monkey King (At the Buddhist cave temple at Dambulla )

Hanuman, small monkey king
Adopts the perfect pose of the adept beggar
He has captured the plea to a T
Those soulful eyes, just on the brink of tears
That one hand cupped for alms like a broken stalk

Hs wife, two steps behind,
Clutches their skinny baby like a holdall
Full of credit cards in a land of thieves

Sitting, bored in the sun, a dreadlocked bead seller
Clucks invites with his tongue, extend his fingertips
Apes the potential giver. Lures them in,
Then throws a well-aimed stick.

Rage defeats servility. The small male screeches a war dance,
Wheels and charges, teeth bared like a demon.
The peddler bats him away,
A water bottle smacked against his snout
A laughter- ripple circulates the stalls
Then, silence in the cauldron of the sun.

Preparing to meet the beloved
based on extracts from a booklet distributed in a spice garden, Matale province, on the properties of Ayurveda medicinal herbal compounds.

Apply four drops of sandalwood oil to the face,
Mixed with a pinch of saffron
Apply for twenty minutes to moisten skin,
Smooth out wrinkles, lessen cellulite.
One teaspoon of King Coconut hair tonic
Must be applied for a total of twenty minutes
Hair will shine and baldness, be prevented.
Five minutes will prepare this blessed potion!
Bee’s honey, lime and pineapple
Drink to the lees to purify the blood.
A further fifteen minutes, rub face from brow to chin
Sandalwood cream removes all acne, pimples
The beloved will arrive in twenty minutes.
To prevent pre-ejaculation, for sexual energy,
Twenty minutes prior to her arrival,
Make half a teaspoon paste of Kami Yogi Bon Bon
To be eaten or drunk with milk and applied to the penis and testacles

Prepare spice tea,

(Cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, with hill country tea,
Four drops of boiled water.
Four drops of vanilla essence to stimulate the body)
Now, robe yourself, strew orchids on the bedding.
Beloved comes,
But lover’s sound asleep.

Aside the Lagoon
A bonnie wird, thon wird lagoon
Bit nae tae bide aside at noon
There’s riftin taeds aneth each tree
An turtles hotchin ben the bree

A preyin mantis cocks its een
Ae meter fae yer TV screen
An fin ye takk a shooer ye’ll meet
Ten lizards baskin in the weet

There’s hornygollachs on the fleer
A millipede hauf up the stair
An hauf a hunner mozzies croon
Aa nicht aside yer braw lagoon.
Bit fegs, nae waur nur Heilan loch
That’s naethin bit a midgie troch!

In the Tropics (Habarana)

Left of the blue pool, the slat-bridge walkway
Turtles rise in the lake like chocolate bubbles
Bug-eyed froglets parp,
Green knobs on flap jack lilies

A chipmunk two tables along
Dines off German pastry
Elegant under a beautiful rose wood chair
Not for him the village dust beside the tin-shed shop
He’s tasted affluence and come to like it.

Ants have sent out scouts to fetch supplies
Mosquitoes kamikazi into a swat
Killed at their moment of ecstasy, snuffed out to a red streak
Maitre d’hote, a crow on the balcony
In full evening dress
Bows approvingly over the hot tureen.
Left of the blue pool, a monitor lizard
Is monitoring the proceedings. His pop-out tongue
Like toast from a black toaster

On Safari/ Looking for the Elephant

The Hindu God Ganesh has many shrines in Sri Lanka:
He has a human body and an elephant head

‘If you’d been here on Monday, there were hundreds!’
Ganesh grins from his flowery pedestal
5 jeeps burn rubber, scaring away the game they’re meant to find.
The tracker’s aged sixteen, one tooth missing, sturdy Western boots
Trying to look like Crocodile Dundee.

We’ve spotted half a peacock, a blue jay’s tail
A definite mongoose entering a termite mound
Flocks of egrets, squawks of parakeets
Not one single elephant at home.

Contrary beast, provided with safety,
Guaranteed fodder, rights and liberties
It chooses to stray, will not perform to order,
Like some wives do, like husbands msy as well,
Wishing the wider world to walk about in.

Buddha at the Bodhi Tree
Arahath Mahinda, to King Dewanampiyatissa: ‘Your Majesty, the birds that glide in the skies and animals that roam the forest have an equal right to live and move anywhere in this country as you have. The land belongs to the people and all other living beings. You are only its trustee.’
A Buddhist nun from North India brought a sapling from the Bodhi tree under which Buddha received enlightenment to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. It is the oldest historical tree in the world. In recent years, as with the Tooth Temple, the shrine and monks have come under terrorist attack.

Here, to the oldest living tree
Pilgrims have flown, sailed, crawled and bussed
To feel its shade to know its strength
The world’s not owned but held in trust

It never withers, fresh shoots grow
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Does not apply to such a tree
The world’s not owned but held in trust

Buddha, in this tree’s motherland
Had conquered self and fear and lust
Now every seed the message gives
The world’s not owned but held in trust

Treasures you covet, things possessed
Silver and gold all turn to rust
Others will claim your home, your land
The world’s not owned but held in trust

Your little self’s a puff of smoke
To every living thing be just
Power brings responsibilities
The world’s not owned but held in trust

The fluttering leaves eternal tell
Man’s not immortal, die we must
Live a full life but live it well
The world’s not owned, but held in trust

At the Lion Rock, Sigiriya

The chameleon on the tree’s a turncoat
A magic trick…you see him, then you don’t
Butterflies are a petal snow-storm, swirling.
Chipmunks leap, a chorus of can can girls
Flicking flirtatious bustles.
A trickle of cold beer runs down a glass and fries
Fan blades slice swathes of coolness in the heat
A monkey, silicon implants in its bum,
Smiles demonically, walks away on its knuckles
Rising up from the scrub, Sigirya fills the landscape
A Cubist square, old warrior’s Lion Rock, 600 feet
Of fortress, hornets, heat.
Last month, Madame, there were 200 stung
A mass attack. The hornet swarms can kill
Two hours elapse. I am moulded
Into the curved back of the chair
I have no desire to conquer a chunk of stone
For the undeniable fact that it is there.
Staggering back, bald stragglers tell of wonders,
Cave frescoes, painted maidens, a dizzy drop
How they crept past the shimmering hornet clumps
That one sharp sound could quick flash detonate.
Safe in the guidebook, I’d been right behind them
As ever, from the outside looking in.

Check point

Smiles and machine guns.
Soldiers, waving us on. A giant concrete Buddha
They’d constructed, right outside their barracks,
Stopped us in our tracks. We checked it out.
90% of all wars are religious.
All day, there had been check points,
A sign at a road end saying
‘People Resettlement Centre’
Our tourist documentation was acceptable
Passing through, they knew we’d pay our way.

Against all recommendations of hygiene guidelines
Crossing the frontier of sanitary foolhardiness,
I’d sampled a drink of lemon from a stall.

Dusk made feather dusters of tall palms
Sweeping cobwebs from the electric blue
Of tropic skies and zigzag streaks of light

Nearing the elephant corridor, aptly named,
Our driver braked hard, swerved into the grass.
‘Wild elephant…He’s seen that sack of rice.’
(Dropped from the back of a lorry, literally.)
The tusker lunged from the jungle, trumpeting.
Trunk raised, he roared, asserting his legal claim.

The Elephant nature reserve has a volatile border
Casualties are common on both sides
Sometimes a farmer dies, sometimes a tusker.
A ragged whoop of boys commenced hostilities
Banging battered tins to drive him off.
During a lull in the skirmish, we escaped
Up the road to our waiting evening meal.


Wearing its insides out like a bag of grapes
Wearing its heart on its sleeve like a pork chop
A flea-bitten dog is trotting along the road
A waistband of flies circling its slit pelt
Better to keep busy till it drops.


The hot wild leopard moves across its cage
Like a Mercedes stuck in a garage
Never out of neutral, headlights blazing

Overheard in a Zoo
The Sunday Observer (Sri Lankan edition, junior section, October 17th 2004, pg 6. ‘Know your idioms- idioms pose a serious problem for English learners, eg. There will be another election this year, got it straight from the horse’s I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth

He came up to the zebra crossing like a bat out of hell
Managed to weasel his way out of the charges, the little rat
He always goes at everything like a bull in a china shop
Stirred up a hornet’s nest there, really set the cat amongst the pigeons.

She’s no better… mutton dressed as lamb
Bet she’s kissed a few frogs in her time
Even so, to marry him, the dogs bollocks…
Well, she was no spring chicken
Thick as pig shit too, no foxy lady
Swanning around with a donkey-breath like him
But when she gets her teeth into something she wants,
She’s a real terrier.

Pity its raining cats and dogs and me like a fish out of water
In my brand suit. Thought I was the cat’s pyjamas
Thought I was the bee’s knees
Ah! A brolly! You always pull a rabbit from the hat!
Did I tell you I let the cat out of the bag?

That story grows horns and a tale each time you tell it
Here’s Henry. Such a snake in the grass, a slippery toad
A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Old goat, he’s blind as a bat
Always some bee in his bonnet. No flies on her though
A real skunk. She’ll milk your pity for all its worth
Where’s the nearest loo, the turtle’s head’s poked out
Can’t stop, my friend, I’ve got to shoot the crow.

In the Shadow of Sri Pada
Adam’s peak (Sri Pada) is reputed to be the mountain Adam sheltered on after being cast out of Eden. 120 km from Colombo, it rises 2240m above sea level. Pilgrims ascend it at night, to witness sunrise from the peak. Singhalese Buddhist believe that Buddha’s sacred footprint is on the top, his last before he ascended to Paradise. Others claim it is where butterflies go to die. During the pilgrimage season, thousands ascend Sri Pada from the settlement of Dalhousie, or from Maskelyia, 20 km away between Hatton and Dalhousie.

A mongoose stands to watch a cricket match
White funeral flags are stretched across a street
Here, jungle rules and dusks are indigo
Here, lines of pilgrimages are ingrained.

Blue skies turn black and teem a monsoon down
Screeching, the monkeys hand-swing on phone-lines
Here, Sinbad gathered rubies, cedar, silk
Here, is the Eden Adam left behind.

Mount Lavinia Restaurant: Arabian Nights

Behind the palm-fringed entrance, the mock Victorian lamps
Is Lady Lavinia’s special preparation
Chutty-baked cake with coconut, cashew, cumin
‘Typically Old English teatime with a charmingly tropical twist’

Slaving over a gloss-white grand piano
A woman wearing a gold and emerald sari
Is playing Strauss, to a party of German tourists

Tonight, the restaurant has an Arab theme
The waitress, straight from a Scottish widows’ advert
Is draped in black, her face, heavily veiled.
Desert dishes with undecipherable names
Are perched on display like turtle doves in a dovecot.

Through the Babel of French and Tamil,
An English voice rings out, as only English could.
‘I’ve no idea what it is. It looks revolting.
I wonder…could you bring some normal food?’

At the Hinnereyn

At the hinnereyn
On the plane gaun hame
I fell tae winnerin, as ye dae in a sardine tin
Wi wings an a toytoon shitehoose
Fit’s in a kintra name?

Gin ye trepan a Scot
Like a stick o Embro rock
Place rins richt throw us
Harns an hairt an wame

Spotlight Poems: published in The Wisdom of Life, Spotlight Poets, 2004

North Sea Rig

Moonpool fills with moon
North Sea crinkles like tinfoil
Waves smack at the rig’s metallic legs.

Greasy fingers stack the doped up pipes
In semis and jack ups workers dream
Of Santas who’ll never visit their Xmas trees.

Beneath the rig’s tall crown
Even asleep, the rousties strut the catwalks
The engineer is trapped inside his doghouse
The derrick man is high on his monkey board
Dreaming of smoko shack at the end of shift.

Roughnecks toss in their bunks
Counting the hours like rosaries
That lead to the helideck, the ‘copters whirring blades
When they’ll struggle ashore to place
A victory flag on their personal mound of Venus.

Pipes however, fantasies of leaving their murky fathoms
They yearn for meltdown, steely transformation
Of being reconstructed as fencing rapiers
Fishing forks, Art Nouveau, or Jacuzzi taps.

China Man’s Kite

Heron sails from the shore
Like a China man’s kite.
Ancient turtles of cliffs rear wizened necks
Spray like cherry blossom,
Wets their ponderous feet.

Fish On a Tree

I was a fish with seven lives.
On Monday, I swam in the sea,
On Tuesday, I drew near to land
On Wednesday, I reached Galilee.

On Thursday, I ate up a psalm
On Friday, how my sorrows grew!
On Saturday the knife was ground
On Sunday, up to heaven I flew

A Small Welsh Hill

A small Welsh hill
Which has never been mentioned
In any Eisteddfod
Has eaten a farmhouse whole…
Walls, chimney, lintel
It has washed the masonry down
With one week’s pitiless rain
And an outsize leek
Which won first prize
At a Cardiff garden show.

For afters, it’s eyeing up a plump black ram.
A fissure’s already opening near the peak.

Lullaby of the Birds

Imagine sunset flooding over snow
Wings, lighter than webs
Strong as prehensile steel
Birds’ heads, nodding.
Sway-bough, crook-craw, eye-droop
The lullaby that the wind
Pours into their hidden ears.

Dark Night Of The Hen

Fourth right in the chicken coop,
Next to a bantam and a Rhode Island Red,
The condemned hen ate a broody supper.

She bequeathed to her sister, Annabelle Long Toes II,
Her scarlet comb.

Her feathers were left to a Quaker quilting commune.

A pigeon agreed to perform the final rites,
The scattering of seed and dust.

She died, it’s said, a chicken to the end.

Cock Crow

The march of the Toreadors
Bleeps from a mobile phone
Wake up call for a night shift nurse in Troon.
Greenwich mean time means tip-top tickers
An army of wound up clickers

Between four firs, the eye of the cock,
A fiery sun, blinks wide. His timing, perfect
His urgent wattles rattling at his throat
As cock-a -doodle-doo
He cleaves the hours apart
Letting the crimson dawn come pouring through.

Bird Man

Alec Pirie’s son is a stamp collector.
His wife’s amassed a wardrobe full of hats
Felt, with silk trimming and a tiny net
Each on a silver stand.

Alec himself, secretly covets wings.
Aches for them, in fact
So imagine his delight to feel them pricking...
Beneath his goose-flesh, tiny pinion buds
Tomorrow over Sainsbury’s, he’ll soar.

Of Quills And Angels

Dickens (prior to residing in Westminster Abbey)
Mislaid a chapter, due to a missing quill.
Sir Richard Arkwright’s design of a spinning frame
Was delayed by two whole days,
When the seraphim requisitioned a box of feathers,
Whilst Michaelangelo, sketching the veins
From a flesher’s corpse in a back street of Old Florence,
Was forced to turn to charcoal when his pen flew off.

Recently, with the national shrinkage of duck ponds,
The enclosure of battery poultry,
Quills are at a premium. Clouds, therefore may seem weightier
Now angels wear polystyrene gowns with polyester pinions
Getting by with no wing and a prayer

Waiting for a god to Come Along

In the land of cacti and crosses
A small white donkey wearing a red saddle
Is waiting for a god to come along.

Meanwhile, a cricket is cricketing.
Local idols are taking to the skies
Crowned by wedding cakes
Ablaze with clouds and candles
Dressed in ivory cassocks,
Capricious as Queen Victoria’s crinolines.

The Annunciation of the Egg

Horses smell sweeter than lilacs.
Their buttocks are firm as a chaise long
Their eyes are lustrous as lilies
They canter like a brook across a ford.

Even now a horse is walking over my fragile memory
As if it was treading eggshells in a green field
The field I sucked like soda one summer’s day
Drinking it in with my eyes.


Cacti suffer from poor PR
They are not sniffed like honeysuckle
They are not loved like roses
They have not got the garish aplomb
Of blazing sunflowers.

Inside every cacti
Is a gladioli trying to get out
Crying ‘Forget-me-Not
In the annals of wonderful Flora.’

A Mercedes Hubcap

Cistern and sieve emerge like changelings
In the disenfranchised wastes of rubbishdom
A Mercedes hubcap shelters from the rain
A tyre curls up with a toilet seat

Here, is a holding bay of rejects
Lacking legitimate purpose
Lacking status,
Of no fixed abode.

A red umbrella rests on a greasy mattress
A mildewed orange splits its tangy sides
Two bike wheels lie divorced, their assets stripped.

Pipe Dream

The sailor’s pipe is fecund as a testicle,
Breeder of spit, of thin grey beards of smoke

Plugged, it blows like a bellows
Smouldering with shag, tugged by the suck of lips

It dreams its stalk is fresh as unchewed clovfer
It dreams it levitates above the mast

No-Man’s Land

In no-man’s land
The white unfurnished room
Hearing the key in the lock
Lies back and thinks of England.


Serious extensions.
When Rapunzel let her hair down
Man, everyone came to the party
Even the rat next door, the little creep.

What’s in Your Handbag, honey?

Size matters. Man, she’s tanned,
She’s lean’s a greyhound
Except for her silicon knockers.
What’s in your handbag, honey?

Sweet thing, eye candy,
Doctors her doubts with gin
Swallows her baby-blockers.

Feeding Frenzy

A concept sat on a plate
Wholesome as Hovis
Till a feeding frenzy of thoughts
Reduced it to crumbs

Rock Hard

Having the presence of mind
To keep your head above water
Hanging by a thread
Between a rock and a hard place
Is where most of us spend our days

If the rock doesn’t get you
The cancer surely will

But in between,
Be sure to eat the strawberry.

Dool, Dool tae Blelack

An Dool tae Blelack’s Heir,
For sendin us fae the Seely Howe
Tae the Cauld Hill o Fare…Trad. North East Scots Rhyme.

When the last Gordon laird of Blelack near Tarland employed a local wizard to expel the fairies from a sheltered glen on his estate to the Hill o Fare by Echt, they cursed him in revenge.

The Green an Pleisunt Lan
Tune: can be sung to a variation of ‘To be a Farmer’s Boy.’

Ten generations o my fowk hae vrocht the North East lan
They hyewed the neeps they stooked the corn,
The rigs ran straicht an gran
The steadins stappt wi kye, were swypit bare o soss
Until a kurn commuter hames war biggit roon the closs.

The gutsy toun claims aa aroon, the green belt’s noo a street
Far barley wyved abune the brae, suburb an city meet
An this is progress we are telt... Mair trees are felled fur hames
As skalin like an ile slick gyangs shops an wynds an lanes.

I sit amang the traffic birr, far thunnerin larries roar
I lang tae hear the leverick sing, or see the lintie soar
Bit fin the lans aa smored, we’ll hae a film tae haun
Tae show that this aince eesed tae be a green an pleisunt lan.

The Ghaists o the Nor East Neuk
Tune: The Lincolnshire Poacher

In the auction ring at the Thainstone Mart
The dowps o the tabbies lies
Wi tooshts o sharn fae glebe an barn
Fur the sale is ower an by
Bit gin ye sit in the seelence there
The bleat o the yows that’s gaen
Wauchts ben the pen far fermin men
Stepped oot tae the dark an rain

Stepped oot tae the dark an rain ma lad
Like the stooks in the parks o auld
Far michty shelts atween the stilts
O the ploo wirked ben the cauld
The fusslin peesie on the brae
Gaed wheeplin ower the mill
Bit as lang’s there’s fowk tae sing the sangs
Thon stooks’ll be staunin still

Sae here’s tae fowk like the bothy king
That’s keepit the memory bricht
O cornkist an tattie shaw
O harness stinch an ticht
The sizzens cheenge an sae maun we
Bit fyles wi a backwird luik
At the lan wir forebears vrocht sae weel
The ghaists o the Nor East neuk

Faither an Son:
Tune: Immortal, Invisible, God only wise

My faither wis a fermer an he tcyauved on the lan
Raised sons an gowd barley far the heich mountains staun
The Sizzens war his maisters bit the wins they blew free
It’s a gran life bit a hard life said ma faither tae me.

The corn it micht wither an the tatties takk blicht
We’d bide at a calvin throw the rigs o the nicht
The frost it wad freeze us an the snaa blaa cruelly
We’re thirled tae these acres, said ma faither tae me.

Fowk said we wir wealthy, bit oor siller wis tied
Tae the tractor, an the combine an the steadins outside
It wis brose fur oor brakkfast, it wis breid fur oor tea,
Son, it’s wirth aa the warsslin, said ma faither tae me.

I gaed tae the skweel an fin ctober wun roon
I bood tae pu tatties like a gweed fermer’s loon
Till ma hauns they war hackit, fur a wee token fee,
Sune my lan will be your lan, said ma faither tae me.

Oh, the rigs they sook ile up, far the dark oceans sleep
Far the siller is certain, wirkers’ pooches are deep
It’s the hale warld I see noo, nae the lan’s tyranny
Buyin pleisurs fur ma family that war ne’er gaen tae me.

I wauk ben the byre noo, far the nowt aff the brae
Wi subsidies faain, they are skimpit o strae
Quit this life fur some leisur, is the coonsel I gie
Easy earned, quicker spent lad, said ma faither tae me

The Knotted Tie

Soiled, grey and silk, the knotted tie
Flops on a junkie’s sordid stair
Like a shed snake. Oh, let it lie!

There is no point to wonder why
The dragon’s blood can so ensnare
Bringing sick dreams to stupefy.

Pitiless stars flower in the sky
No Bethlehem to see or care
Poppies wear thorns that crucify

Turn father into jailor, spy.
Bring in the rotgut guest, despair
Here, where addiction fixed and sly

Sends youth and heartache out to buy
The passport, grinning on the chair
They’ll use, with Lucifer to fly

How many’d like to noose that tie
To hoist King Dealer into air
Like an old crow hung out to dry?

Who’d be a junkie? Say, not I.
I neither turn to drink nor prayer
Life’s best where none can pain nor pry
Behind the pen. It’s quiet there.

Gweed Coonsel tae a Frien…
A Scots Owersettin frae The Poems of Catullus (23)

Frien Furius, ‘fa ains nae slaves nur gowd’
Nae sonsie flee in the press.
Nae wyver. Nae bricht hairth-lowe
Anely a da an a stepminnie
Fas strang teeth snap up aathin ye pit afore them,
Auld buits an nails.

Coont yersel weel-saird
Yer faither, his shilpit wife, yersel
In fine trim
Nar twa faul wi the bellyrive
Nae vexed aboot reivers, floodin, or fire
Thon bogles that fleg the weel-aff
Fa wad ettle tae pooshun ye?
Yer three bodies clean as a bane
Byornar dried bi cauld, heat, hunger
Fit mair cud ye sikk?
Swyte, pyochers, slivvers…aa snochers
Unkent bi yersels
Fegs, yer as clean as fussles
Even yer erses are dry
As weel wirkin satt-poorers
Wirkin 10 times a year at maist.

Yer keech’s like steens or
Braid beans lang in the sun,
Easy crummlit tae stoor atween the fingers,
Leavin ahin nae sossy skitter skyte.
Thon blissins are nae tae be lichtlified
Ye should stop deavin fowk
Bi priggin fur haund oots
Ye’ve mair nur eneuch as it is
Gin ye anely kent it.

A Warlock Visits the Doctor’s.

Hoastin an snocherin! Hap yer moos! Keep yer germs tae yersels!
I anely cam in cause I lost the pooer o castin magic spells!

Ma kyte’s bin sair since Wednesday last- it micht be the puddock stew
I hinna bin richt since Halloween…I’m needin a cure richt noo!

There’s peely wally fowk in here wi dizzens o different bugs-
Aathin fae wattery een an plooks tae stoonin taes an lugs!

They hirple in an ye dinna ken if they’ve plague or a fuzzy heid,
An I see them glowerin at ma veins, cause its green, ye ken ma bluid.

I think I’ll leave, I’ll gyang tae the vet, that’s mair fur the likes o me,
Fur since ma pooers hae dwinnlit awa I canna whoosh nur flee.

He plaisters the birdies brukken wings, he bandages partans’ shells
Sae surely a vet can gie me back the poouer o makkin spells!

The Bogles’ Ceilidh at Blethertoun Kirkyaird

At the ghaists’ an bogles’ ceilidh, tae win in ye maun be deid
Clankin chynes, or in a gounie wi a green licht roon yer heid.

Broonies, kelpies, ghaists an bogles, poltergeist fae graveyaird glaur
Silkies, skeletons an banshees proppin up the potion bar.

Zombie, alien, broomstick rider- fiddles bow an bagpipes skirl
Up the steeple, roon the yew tree, tak their partners, wheech an birl.

Voodoo, viper, cat an corbie, roon the gravesteens hooch an prance
See them lowpin, hear them lauchin, lowpin in the ghaisties’ daunce.

Inspired by a detail from Heteronymous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’

Love’s a bubble, a burp in the hookah-pipe of life
Ephemeral as cuckoo spit on a thistle.

Inside this nebulous sphere, would you Adam and Eve it,
Lust is flowering.

Young flesh
So ripe
So sweet
Swelling with juice.

Cherry mouth, apple cheek, eyes like sloes
Everyone else is a gooseberry
An extraneous prickle
Especially the large black rat
Who’ll slip in when nobody’s looking
By the back entrance
Bring the bills, the infidelities, the disillusion
The hundred little barbs to pop the dream.

The Castlegate Unicorn Spikks

A unicorn’s hames in the cauld an weet
The hurly-burly o spire an street
Wi the skirlin gull an the cooshie doo
Neigh say I an the doo says croo

Aa the gossip an sklaik wi hear
Tittle tattle fae far an near
We ken aa the hullabaloo
Neigh say I an the doo says croo

Fas bin chorin an fas bin hired
Fas promoted an fas bin fired
I ken mair nur the police HQ
Neigh say I an the doo says croo

This Braif Toun

Eerily wearily rins the tide, washin the shores o a Norlan toun
Up in the sky far starnies bide, sits the meen in her siller goun

Doon the derkness the Northern Lichts cast their magic on crest an flag
Stepping ooto their civic frame, city unicorn, leopard, stag

Sae in a nicht o stars an frost, the market cross like a caunle shines
The unicorn, stag an leopard lowp, oot ower the city’s streets an wynds.

They’re the heralds o history, telling the tales o bluid an sword
Up the Castlegate, doon the Green, the glory symbols o Bon Accord.

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Information about Document 774

Serendipity and ither poems in Scots and English


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Children (under 13s)
Teenagers (13-17)
General public
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Word count 12339
General description The text arose from historical research on a small scale into North East Scots tea planters in Ceylon.

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher Lochlands
Publication year 2004
Place of publication Maud
Edition 1st

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction
Other Introductory material is in prose.


Author details

Author id 112
Forenames Sheena
Surname Blackhall
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 16
Upbringing/religious beliefs Brought up Protestant, now Buddhist
Occupation Writer and supply teacher
Place of birth Aberdeen
Region of birth Aberdeen
Birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Aberdeen
Region of residence Aberdeen
Residence CSD dialect area Abd
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Manager of Deeside Omnibus Service
Father's place of birth Aboyne
Father's region of birth Aberdeen
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Private Secretary
Mother's place of birth Aberdeen
Mother's region of birth Aberdeen
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic Yes Yes Yes Yes Elementary. Gaelic choir. Poetry.
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes