One of my favorite poets is Hugh MacDiarmid, a Scotsman of violently clashing ideas (both a staunch Communist and a rabid Scots Nationalist) and undeniable poetic genius that shines through the artificial but convincing Lallans dialect in which he chose to write his earliest (and best) poems. Herewith “The Eemis Stane” (‘the unsteady stone’), from Sangschaw (1925); how(e)-dumb-deid is ‘depth, darkest point,’ hairst is ‘harvest,’ lift ‘sky,’ yowdendrift ‘blizzard,’ fug ‘moss,’ hazelraw ‘lichen,’ and yirdit ‘buried’—the rest shouldn’t be too difficult. Listen to it.

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw
No’ yirdit thaim.

Poetry update: I won’t make this a separate entry, but there’s a wonderful poem called “Mordred” by John Ashbery (who gets better every year — I never used to like him much) in the Sept. 26 NYRB (you have to pay to get the poem, but the table of contents may help locate it for people who have the issue); it includes lines like “I was preternaturally wise/ but it was spring, there was no one to care or do./ It was spring and the sprinklers were on” and “But I do, I said. Then, well, it’s like a clearing/ in the darkness that you can’t see. Darkness is meant for all of us./ We grow used to it,” but I’m really citing it for the last line, the new motto of the Hats page: “Oh yes well it is important to have a hat.”

Update (Apr. 2024). The Ashbery poem is online here (archived).


  1. My first reaction was “Hoots! Here’s a braw competitor tae McGonagall!”, but now I find myself wishing I spoke his language. D’ye know of a volume wi’ a trot?

  2. All the MacDiarmid collections I’ve seen have explanations of dialect words; some have them after each poem (like the Penguin Selected Poems I quoted from), others have a glossary at the back — see what’s available and pick the format you like best. But do investigate him; he’s well worth the effort expended — among other things, he did some of the best translations of Russian poetry in the 20th century, and his long poem “The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” (which includes some of those translations) is a classic.

  3. A nice musical setting by Ronald Stevenson (thanks, Elias!).

  4. Oh, and eemis is in the DSL s.v. immis:

    1. Of the weather or the atmosphere: variable, uncertain […]; dark, gloomy, misty […]; chill, having every appearance of rain […]
    2. Of land or crops grown upon it: unfruitful, unproductive, not dependable as to productivity […]
    3. Of an object: insecurely balanced, unsteady; also used adv.
    Ags. 1825 Jam.:
    That steen stands very eemis,” that stone has not a proper bottom.
    Sc.(E) 1926 H. McDiarmid Sangschaw 23:
    The warl’ like an eemis stane Wags i’ the lift.

    [O.N. ýmiss, now this, now that, Norw. ymis, changeable.]

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