WEEK THIRTY-FIVE – The Clyde/The Spey

>> The Clyde

The Spey <<

clyde              spey


The names of Scotland’s rivers are amongst the oldest in the country dating back to centuries before recorded history. Highways before there were roads, they guided populations, culture and trade both within and outwith the landmass. The ancient waterway of Clut – now, of course, known as the River Clyde – was at the centre of the ancient Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde – eyrnas Ystrad Clut. In more recent times it has been at the centre of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland, and central to commerce with the American continent, including the infamous slave trade. Flowing ultimately into the Atlantic, we are pairing the river with another which flows in the opposite direction to the North Sea. Now known in Gaelic as Uisge Spè, the River Spey also has its derivation in the Welsh-related Brythonic language. First noted in history by Ptolemy in 150AD, its name is thought to mean ‘hawthorn river’ from the term yspyddad. Very much not associated with heavy industry, the Spey nonetheless plays an important part in such vital Scottish activities as whisky distilling, salmon fishing and tourism. While the two rivers represent very different Scotlands, each is an essential part of the country’s identity.

by James McGonigal

My blood is in the Clyde.
A broken bottle in the burn –
threads pulsing out under the viaduct
and westwards. The Clyde will be changing
colour tomorrow, my father said. Red Clydeside.
Binding my foot tighter in his handkerchief
to carry me back to his mother’s house.
                I used to swim here as a boy, the water
                was darker then.

A rusting cast-iron tub released from
its hungry thirties, weekly washhouse stint
now rested at the end of my granny’s garden
concocting its potent liquid manure from
tattie shaws, nettles, all manner of peelings,
peapods and sulphurous Lanarkshire rain
which would leach any goodness into the river
                unless she caught it for the clay she turned
                in old pit boots – for her tatties and kail.

Remembering her eldest travelling the line
north of the river towards St Mary’s High,
Whifflet (‘the little whiff’) by Coatbridge –
so much schoolboy brightness borne
into the daily smoking darkness mined
by men like his dad, two years killed,
for men like him and me –
                the cinder trail, the magnate’s metronome,
                our rattling train at dawn for Glasgow Central.

That brassy taste of 1950s smogs.
Staring to make out through mirk
the numbers on trams we could hear
but not see yet, I was scared of getting
doubly lost. We wore handkerchiefs
across our faces like sooty bandits.
And back at the ranch at last
                blowing your nose was a Whistlerian
                study in black on white.

Now Clydeside’s a postcard. Of pensioners
posing for snaps on the Rothesay Ferry –
an outing long before that word got gay
and proud. Stout women in herringbone coats
buttoned up to their knitted sou’westers
like mermaids in glasses
or barnacled goddesses staring
                out from the prow into what’s left
                of the teeth of life’s gale.

by Matthew Fitt

Spey runs to Tay runs into Liffey
Becomes Vltava.

I knew a man that saw the Spey and drank it.
When he woke up, it was in Turkey.
A flying carpet brought him home.
I looked for him in Warriston
but did not see him there.

Spey runs to Tay runs into Liffey
Becomes Vltava.

I was not told and did not ask.
The bodies on the Stony Beach was all I knew.
A stag in the water at Mugdrum.
The Dundee Dry Dock instead of Sunday school.
And Liffey (now I’m Irish) was never far to swim.

Spey runs to Tay runs into Liffey
Becomes Vltava.

My boy knows the river and its castles.
At Zvikov once he broke an axe.
In Krumlov he fought Germans.
Above the gates of Prague,
He holds the hands of ghosts.

Spey runs to Tay runs into Liffey
Becomes Vltava.

I will see the Spey again and when I do
Beharrie will be waiting.
Stuarts, Jacks and Christies will smile at me
From stones langsyne laid
At Dallas and Aberlour.



James McGonigal is a Glasgow-based poet and editor. His Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of jmcgonigal-crt-gerry-cambridgeEdwin Morgan (2012) was Scottish Research Book of the Year, and he recently co-edited The Midnight Letterbox, a Carcanet selection of Morgan’s correspondence 1950–2010. His Cloud Pibroch (2010) won the Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlet Award. The Camphill Wren is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press.


Matthew Fitt is a makar and translator. Author o But n Ben A-Go-Go, the first novel in Scots, he is co-foonder (alang wi James Robertson) o Itchy Coo, the successfu imprint that maks books in Scots for bairns and weans o aw ages. A Scots columnist for The National newspaper, he is the official Scots translator o David Walliams and Goscinny/Uderzo’s Asterix. http://www.mfitt.com


Images courtesy of;
James McGonigal image courtesy of Gerry Cambridge

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