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The Library



Amanda Thomson

Look to the old dictionaries.


I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. Perhaps it’s been because for the first time in ages I’ve been in one place for an extended period, in this spring to summer of 2020. I’ve watched the first buds on the larches and alders, seen the thin film of yellow pollen from the Scots pines cover every surface at the very end of May, and waited for, and watched the swallows and the martins return; the young have fledged now and sit, quivering at first, like novice tightrope walkers, on the electricity wires outside the house. I heard my first willow warbler on April 17th, and my first cuckoo of the year on the 24th, the day my neighbour, who’s lived here far longer than I have, predicted they’d return.

In these long summer hours of daylight, my understanding of duration alters and in old Scots Language dictionaries, I find words and phrases for the nuances of light and how a northern thread of it lingers from the end of one day to the beginning of the next, at the head of the dim, midsummer twilight between sunset and sunrise.

scraigh-o’ day, the first appearance of dawn
grey o’ the morning, dawn of the day
greking, peep of day
day-sky, the appearance of the sky at break of day
the scaud o’ day, the daybreak
lichtening, dawn
neb-o’-the-morning, the time between dawn and sunrise
creek o’ day, daybreak
dawing, dawn of day
scaud o’ day, daybreak
morning-mun, increasing daylight
between the sun and the sky, the interval between daybreak and sunrise
sky, the light at the eastern horizon before sun-rise, or at the western after sunset; thus, “was ye up afore the sin the day?” “ay, afore the sky”, or “the sky winna set this hour yet”

Each dayligaun now, the roe deer hover at the edges of the field, close to the bracken and junipers and the woods behind, and we watch the woodcock rode above the trees in geometric lines, and we wait for the hares to appear. In the time before the flick of a light-switch, there’s a gentle easing into the night.

the gray, twilight
sockin-hour, the portion of time between day-light and candle light
neuk-time, the twilight; in reference to its being the season for pastime or gossiping among work-people
gloaming-shot, a twilight interval which workmen within doors take before using lights
undern, the third hour of the artificial day, according to the ancient reckoning, i.e. nine o’clock
nichting-time, the day when out-door labour ceases during the winter season, i.e., when daylight closes
fore-nicht, the early part of night, the interval between twilight and bedtime
heel of the twilight, the termination of twilight

In these old dictionaries time stretches beyond the hours of the day to months of the year and so many of the words and descriptions are rooted in nature and the land:

Craw Sunday, the first Sunday in March, on which crows were supposed to begin to build their nests.
Gowk-storm, a storm consisting of several days of tempestuous weather, believed by the peasantry periodically to take place about the beginning of April, at the time that the gowk, or cuckoo, visits the country.
Worm month, a designation given to the month of July, from the hatching of many kinds of reptiles in this month.

And then, at the far end of the summer, Stooky Sunday, the Sunday at harvest when the greatest number of stooks are seen in the field. Beyond this, the breakback moon, so called by the harvest labourers because of the additional work it entails. Go-harvest, Go-hairt, -harst, the latter end of summer; the time from the end of harvest till the beginning of winter. Lang halter time, the season of the year when fields being cleared, travellers and others claimed a common rite of passage.

There’s an immediacy to the knowledge of forthcoming weather too, usually rooted in experience and what is visible, and usually in the soon to be, or the near present: heavy-heartit, (used of the atmosphere) lowering, threatening rain; gow, a halo, circle round the sun or moon, a “brough”, portending bad weather. Even other phrases that are longer in term refer to near predictable Scottish weather events: May-gobs, cold weather about the second week of May, Lammas-flood, -rain, -spate, heavy rain and floods about “Lammas”.

We’ve always reached to nature and the earth, and some of us still do, for alignment, solace, comparison. In these old dictionaries I come across phases like, neb-o’-the-mire-snipe, the utmost extremity, and cheepart, a meadow pipit or a small person with a shrill voice. Drizzen, to low as a cow or ox, sometimes applied to a sluggard groaning over his work. Weather-gaw, part of one side of a rainbow; any change in the atmosphere, known from experience to presage bad weather; any day too good for the season, indicating that it will be succeeded by bad weather; anything so uncommonly favourable, as to seem an indication of a reverse. Ferny-buss, a clump of ferns; a bush or fern; as in “it’s either a tod or a ferny-buss”, it’s something or other, no matter what. Peak, to chirp; to squeak; to speak in a whisper or thin, weak voice; to complain of poverty, n. the chirp of a bird; the squeak of a mouse; an insignificant voice; a small person with a thin, weak voice.

I’ve loved the phrase to spurrie-how, to run as fast as a sparrowhawk flies, since I found it. It speaks again of that first reach of metaphor to what is known and what is seen and imagined. I listened to a podcast recently where they described how weather forecasting as we know it today came about at the time of the invention of the telegraph, when news and the sharing of information could move faster than clouds, and we could become one step ahead. I have an App on my phone which tells me the rain here will start in three minutes and end 35 minutes later.

Now, nature is not necessarily our first port of call when we think of speed and we can think in terms of light years and, perhaps, long nows. We measure upload speeds and download speeds in terms of milliseconds, and we can travel around the world or be connected and alerted to actions and atrocities and movements and thinking in ways which were unimaginable mere decades ago. Daily we’re asked to think in abstracts and what ifs in speeds and times beyond the human-scale.

From the eighteenth century, we’ve had an awareness of deep time and have looked beyond our present existence to a geological scale that measures time and change in millions of years. Just over a couple of hours drive northwest from where I stay lies Sutherland and the Knockan Crag. It sits within and overlooks Norman MacCaig’s favoured landscape, and he writes of this area,

Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out
these valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,
and left, on the hard rock below –
the ruffled foreland –
this frieze of mountains, filed
on the blue air

Knockan Crag is said to be one of the first important sites of modern geology, and it’s a place where it’s easy to see the Moine Thrust, where two continents crashed together and older rock pushed and crushed and folded and rested on top of younger rocks, disrupting layers of time. “At Knockan Crag” the Tourist Board tells us, “you can bridge 500 million years of history with your bare hands.”

But now we’re told we’re living in the Anthropocene, and we’re still thinking of it in terms of decades and centuries, and not in the millions of geological years such ’cenes are usually measured in. It’s a strange thing to have to think about our own responsibilities within an ongoing timespan of earth that’s hitherto been rooted in the slow formation of rocks and changes in climate that have had nothing to do with humanity. We’re adding plastic and carbon and radioactive isotopes to layers of time that have been seen and shown in rock strata. Now there are interconnections to rock and minerals and how we’ve used this earth, and they’re present in histories and projections of future times near and far that are written and being re-written as I write.

We’re in a strange time of looking out and over, peeking over lockdown walls with trepidation, and wondering how and when the things of the world might connect, and might impact on and implicate us, and our behaviour. So much since March 2020 has felt day-to-day and so immediate, so local; within a pandemic that has swept, is sweeping still, across the world. But at the same time we do look out, we have to, and we look out across the world in ways that our forebearers would never have thought possible, and see change, and possibilities for change that, perhaps, at the beginning of 2020 we would never have thought possible. We read about carbon emissions falling because of the reductions in travel by air, land and sea. We see with horror the murder of George Floyd and watch or participate in or comment on subsequent protests against racism and police brutality, and monuments to racists are pulled down. We follow #climatestrike and #blacklivesmatter and #meto, and hope we get through this pandemic, though we wonder whether anything on a structural level will shift or remain shifted. Some of us watch a doomsday clock – an ongoing commentary on nuclear proliferation and now, the climate emergency – which was moving ever closer to midnight even before Covid-19 (“Doomsday clock lurches to 100 seconds to midnight – closest to catastrophe yet”, The Guardian, 2020).

Years and decades and centuries. How we understand the past will impact on our sense of the present, and thereafter, our possible futures. Even discussions about when the Anthropocene starts complicate and implicate in different ways (Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene”, Nature, 2015). Should we pinpoint its start from the time of Columbus and into the sixteenth century with the beginnings of the exchange of species between the “Old” and “New” worlds? Some might argue that it started at the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The historian T.C. Smout, writing the social history of Scotland noted, “to the economic historian the success of the first phase of the industrial revolution is succeeded by the success of iron and coal in the second, then after 1860 by the triumph of steel, ships, jute, tweed and high farming … to the social historian – or at least to me – things seem rather different.” He writes – and these early years are when the Jamieson dictionary (1846) was compiled – “The age of great industrial triumphs was an age of appalling social deprivation” (T. C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People 1830–1950, 2010). Now, with hindsight, success is re-written in the context of carbon emissions and pollution, and some have argued the Anthropocene really began at a time much closer to now, with the detonation of the first atomic bombs and the radioactivity cast up into the atmosphere from the 1950s (“The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age, The Guardian, 2016).

Smout draws attention to the humanity impacted on by the industrial, but Kathryn Yusoff adds more, revealing the seam of colour running through the Anthropocene (Katheryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 2018). She’s interested in changing what she calls the “grammar” and “language” of geology, adding another corporeality and responsibility to it. If the Anthropocene started with Columbus, or thereabouts, and the beginning of the trade and the movement of species between the Europe and the Americas then, “the collision of the old and new” covers over the friction of a less smooth, more corporeal set of racialized violences. These are exchanges which are “the directed colonial violence of forced eviction from land, enslavement on plantations, in rubber factories and mines, and the indirect violence of pathogens through forced contact and rape …” (Katheryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 2018). Of the Industrial Revolution, Yusoff writes, “In 1833, Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, and the taxpayer payout of £20 million in ‘compensation’ [to slave owners!] built the material, geophysical (railways, mines, factories), and imperial infrastructure of Britain and its colonial enterprises and empire” (Katheryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 2018). If it started with atomic testing, then, “Nuclear testing marks the displacement and exposure of indigenous peoples in the Pacific Islands and the radiation of Native American and Aboriginal peoples in North America and Australia” (Katheryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 2018).

She writes of this Anthropocene, “the end of this world has already happened for some subjects, and it is the prerequisite for the possibilities of imagining ‘living and breathing again’ for others” (Katheryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 2018). This pandemic, and the time of it has further exposed inequities. Those of us who are lucky can sit in our local bubbles and wonder, worry how much of what has happened has changed minds or made those who think in a particular way anyway just a little bit more resolved, one way or the other, to try and act and behave more proactively – for good or bad. And how many of us still feel that quiver of powerlessness and limitation that we’ve always felt in the world; overwhelmed by considerable failures to value human life, in that same way that we can’t quite comprehend the vastness of deep time or the complications of what needs to be done to make things better, on the existential scale that the call to arms that correction to this Anthropocene trajectory as it stands, needs.

In these old dictionaries, eard-din means thunder; thunder in the earth; an earthquake; and I can only think that it’s a composite meaning earth noise, and how interesting there’s that conflation of air and land, air and rock. And we’ll bide here, on some days walking up to the moor in the hope of hearing wheeples or wherries, and watching and listening to the sirdouns, pews and chirls. How easy it’s been, in some ways to quiet the noise, or drown out that which we don’t want to hear, or it can take all our strength to listen to, and understand and find a way to act on what we are listening to. And I find myself returning to this old dictionary, these old words and phrases, wondering whether this is or will be a hearkenin’ win’, a comparative lull in a storm, followed by a destructive blast.

To sirdoun, v. to emit a plaintive cry, as some birds do
To wheeple, v. to whistle like a whaup (curlew), to whistle a shrill, melancholy note, as plovers do
To whirry awa’, v. to fly off with such noise as a partridge or moorcock makes when it springs from the ground
To pew, n, v the plaintive cry of birds; the least breath of wind or smoke; the least ripple on the sea; (applied to birds) to emit a mournful sound
To chirl, v. to chirp, warble merrily; to whistle shrilly; to emit a low, melancholy sound, as birds do in winter or before a storm; to laugh immoderately, n. a low, melancholy sound; chirping

From Irish Pages Vol. 11 No. 1: The Anthropocene.

Amanda Thomson is a visual artist and writer who lives and works in in Glasgow and Strathspey. Much of her work – in art and writing – is about the Highlands of Scotland, its landscape and nature, and how we are located (and locate ourselves) in the world. Her first book, A Scots Dictionary of Nature, was published by Saraband Books in 2018.

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