James Robertson

James Robertson was born in 1958 and grew up in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire. A poet, editor, novelist and publisher, he is an active and prolific writer, enjoying stints at Hugh MacDiarmid’s cottage, Brownsbank, near Biggar, Lanarkshire, and as the first Writer-in-Residence at the Scottish Parliament. He set up Kettillonia, a small pamphlet press in 1999, and was general editor of Itchy Coo, the successful Scots children’s book imprint at publishers Black and White. His novel Joseph Knight won the Saltire Society Book of the Year in 2003 and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year award, and in 2010 his Scottish epic And the Land Lay Still won Robertson a second Saltire Society award. James Robertson translates classic children’s novels, such as Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr Fox as The Sleekit Mr Tod and George’s Marvellous Medicine as Geordie’s Mingin Medicine.

Listen to James Robertson reading and explaining Robert Fergusson’s ‘Ode to the Gowdspink’
‘Poem:

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Explanation:

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Ode to the Gowdspink <N1>

Frae fields whare Spring her sweets has blawn
Wi caller verdure owr the lawn,
The gowdspink comes in new attire,
The brawest ’mang the whistling choir,
That, ere the sun can clear his een,
Wi glib notes sain the simmer’s green.

Sure Nature herried mony a tree,
For spraings and bonny spats to thee:
Nae mair the rainbow can impart
Sic glowing ferlies o’ her art,
Whase pencil wrought its freaks at will
On thee the sey-piece o’ her skill.
Nae mair thro’ straths in simmer dight
We seek the rose to bless our sight;
Or bid the bonny wa-flowers sprout
On yonder ruin’s lofty snout.
Thy shining garments far outstrip
The cherries upo’ Hebe’s lip,
And fool<N2> the tints that Nature chose
To busk and paint the crimson rose.

’Mang man, wae’s heart! we aften find
The brawest drest want peace of mind,
While he that gangs wi ragged coat
Is weel contentit wi his lot.
Whan wand wi glewy birdlime’s set,
To steal far aff your dautit mate,
Blyth wad ye change your cleething gay
In lieu of lav’rock’s sober grey.
In vain thro’ woods you sair may ban
Th’ envious treachery of man,
That, wi your gowden glister taen,
Still hunts you on the simmer’s plain,
And traps you ’mang the sudden fa’s
O’ winter’s dreary dreepin snaws.
Now steekit frae the gowany field,
Frae ilka fav’rite houff and bield,
But mergh<N3>, alas! to disengage
Your bonny bouk frae fettering cage,
Your free-born bosom beats in vain
For darling liberty again.
In window hung, how aft we see
Thee keek around at warblers free,
That carrol saft, and sweetly sing
Wi a’ the blythness of the spring?
Like Tantalus<N4> they hing you here,
To spy the glories o’ the year;
And tho’ you’re at the burnie’s brink,
They downa suffer you to drink.

Ah, Liberty! thou bonny dame,
How wildly wanton is thy stream,
Round whilk the birdies a’ rejoice,
An’ hail you wi a gratefu voice.
The gowdspink chatters joyous here,
And courts wi gleesome sangs his peer:
The mavis frae the new-bloom’d thorn
Begins his lauds at ear’est morn;
And herd loun louping owr the grass,
Needs far less fleetching til his lass,
Than paughty damsels bred at courts,
Wha thraw their mous, and take the dorts:
But, reft of thee, fient flee we care
For a’ that life ahint can spare.
The gowdspink, that sae lang has kend
Thy happy sweets (his wonted friend),
Her sad confinement ill can brook
In some dark chamber’s dowy nook:
Tho’ Mary’s hand his neb supplies,
Unkend to hunger’s painfu cries,
Ev’n beauty canna cheer the heart
Frae life, frae liberty apart;
For now we tyne its wonted lay,
Sae lightsome sweet, sae blythly gay.

Thus Fortune aft a curse can gie,
To wyle us far frae liberty:
Then tent her siren smiles wha list,
I’ll ne’er envy your girnal’s grist<N5>;
For whan fair freedom smiles nae mair,
Care I for life? Shame fa the hair<N6>;
A field o’ergrown wi rankest stubble,
The essence of a paltry bubble.

North-Belton, Aug. 9. [1773]

<n1> First published in The Weekly Magazine, 12 August 1773.
<n2> fool: make look foolish.
<n3> but mergh: without strength.
<n4> Tantalus: in Greek mythology, a Lydian king whose father was Zeus. He told the secrets of the gods to mortals, and was punished by being placed up to his chin in one of the rivers of Hades, with a fruit-laden tree just out of reach above his head. Whenever he tried to pluck the fruit, the waters receded and he failed to get any, which left him in agonies of thirst and hunger. From this story comes the word “tantalise”.
<n5> your girnal’s grist: the size of your meal-chest, i.e. your wealth.
<n6> Shame fa the hair: not so much as a hair.

Recorded, edited and produced by Laura Cameron-Lewis and Andrew Eaton-Lewis of (g)Host City. www.virtualfestival.org and mastered by Hamish Brown.

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