Guest post by Alison Miller
A year or so before he died my uncle told me of a piece of Orkney dialect that had tickled his father, my grandfather, who had preserved it intact. My uncle told me the circumstances in which it was uttered: a man from a farm near Viewfield where my grandfather was a dairy farmer came by one day. He may have been looking for peats. He delivered the piece of language my grandfather kept.
The paragraph the farmer uttered could be translated thus: ‘What weather, man. Such frequent, loud battering of extremely heavy rain, thrown by powerful winds against the windows and doors. And the turf rendered damp so that we can hardly light a fire and keep ourselves warm.’
When my uncle told the story, I could guess the meanings of the Orkney words easily enough because of the context, though I’d never have used them this way. I was struck by this story in various ways: the dialect words were simultaneously old-fashioned and unfamiliar yet also recognisable. I would still use one of the words, but as a verb, not a noun. What is more intriguing is that my grandfather had found it sufficiently strange to hold onto it, enjoy it in retrospect. Was it already old fashioned in the early decades of the twentieth century? Was it an East Mainland phrase, unfamiliar to a boy recently come from the west? Was it more of a farming idiom than a boy who began his working life as a tailor would have heard?
By the time my grandfather handed it down to my uncle, it was no longer a phrase you were likely to hear in Orkney despite its obvious merits of brevity and onomatopoeia.
I thought of this linguistic heirloom when I wrote the piece for Writing the North, featuring my shy young grandfather as an apprentice tailor before the move to Viewfield and his life as a dairy farmer. My uncle wrote the phrase down for me on a piece of paper which I know I kept. Somewhere.
And yet, I couldn’t find a way to use it that felt genuine. I find myself envying the Shetland poets, who move in and out of dialect in a way that seems unforced. Some even update their Facebook status in Shetlandic!
I sent my Writing the North piece to my sister in Glasgow. On the phone, she began to read it to me in a ‘yokelish’ Orkney dialect, drawing out the vowels. I don’t blame her for this: we all did it as kids growing up in Kirkwall, catching snatches of country dialects down the street.
But it highlighted the problem for me of writing in Orcadian. The stock of expressive dialect words in everyday use is dwindling. And every island and parish has its own dialect.
So what to do with the piece of language handed down to me? I could imagine it as a hologram. This snatch of Orkney dialect is a message from a bygone era, before triple glazing and central heating and picture windows turned to face the sea.
The hologram flickers into life:
A farmer steps into the warmth at Viewfield, shakes the water off his coat and his cap, stands in front of the stove, long gone, delivers his speech to my grandfather:
‘Whit waether, min. Rashy bulder efter rashy bulder and no a dry paet in the hoose!’
Alison Miller is the Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence in Orkney Library & Archive. Her novel Demo, published by Penguin in 2006, was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Award. Alison has had fiction and poetry published in anthologies, and her stories broadcast on BBC Radio 4.