Deid folk, Sweetheart Abbey, Scotland

Here’s a poem to mark the beginning of the school year. For some people this is a happy time – a time of new hopes and progress. For others it isn’t. I’ll leave you to work out which camp the Scottish poet Robert Garioch fell into, with the poem ‘Elegy’, addressed to two elder school masters in the school that he worked at:


They are lang deid, folk that I used to ken

their firm set lips aa mowdert and agley,

sherp-tempert een rusty amang the cley:

they are baith deid, thae wycelike, bienlie men,


heidmaisters, that had been in pouer for ten

or twenty year afore fate’s taiglie wey

brocht me, a young, weill-harnit, blate and fey

new-cleckit dominie, intill their den.


Ane tellt me it was time I learnt to write –

round-haund, he meant – and saw about my hair:

I mind of him, beld-heidit, wi a kyte.

Ane sneerit quarterly – I cuidna square

my savings bank – and sniftert in his spite.

Weill, gin they arena deid, it’s time they were.

*Robert Garioch

From Selected Poems 1966, reprinted in Twelve Modern Scottish Poets, ed. Charles King, University of London Press 1971

How elegiac is this elegy? The first stanza is reasonably respectful, granting them through the adjectives ‘wycelike and bienlie’ the dignity of their social status. It’s true that there are less complimentary descriptions here, but these are of their bodies rotting in the earth – and such description of those once among us now reduced to earth is perfectly sound material for an elegy, a touch of memento mori. Even calling them ‘sherp-tempert’ needn’t be thought of as especially negative. Perhaps the only sure sign that there is a distinctly unelegaic quality in this first stanza is the glee with which Garioch repeats and varies the declaration of the men’s death, at the same time narrowing the subject from a more general ‘folk’ to the two particular men he has in mind.

Then Garioch describes how ‘fate’s taiglie way’ brought him to these men, not without a certain self-pitying drama (all part of the the poem’s humour, perhaps.) Garioch really was a school teacher, and he really didn’t like it. Two vignettes show us the unlikeable traits of the men, before Garioch lands the punchline: ‘Weill, gin they arena deid, it’s time they were’. The poem has not been an elegy at all, rather a bitter reminiscence of two resented social superiors (and, more to the point, bosses). One hopes both men weren’t alive to suffer the indignity of reading the poem.

A poet who was compelled by circumstances to have to take a job as a school teacher, Garioch writes about his work with unsparing honesty – and some bitterness. He also writes with the undercurrent of humour of so much poetry written in Scots (Hugh Macdiarmid excepted).  It could be seen as a kind of ‘sticking it to the boss’ poem, and, given the near-universality of the sentiment, there aren’t too many of those about.

For those of you without recourse to an English-Scots dictionary, here’s an anglicised version:


They’re long dead, folk I used to know,

their firm-set lips, mouldy and awry,

sharp-tempered eyes rotting in the earth;

they’re both dead, respectable, prosperous men,


headmasters, in power some ten

or twenty years before fate’s tangled way

brought me, a young, well-horned (clever), shy and bashful

newly-hatched teacher into their den


One told me it was time I learnt how to write –

cursive, he meant – and saw about my hair:

I remember him, bald, with a paunch.

The other sneered now and again – I couldn’t square

my savings account – and scoffed in spite.

Well, if they’re not dead, it’s time they were.

(P.S This is an edited version of a post I wrote a year and a half ago, for another WordPress blog. Sepetember is a busy time of year for me too! But original blog posts are on their way.)



Filed under Literature, Poetry

4 responses to “Elegy

  1. I’m beginning to feel quite alone as a commentator but I love poetry, and it’s fun. This poem brings home my own experience as a newly hatched teacher, as well as the resentment engendered by administrators who care for little beyond the coddling of their own egos. As they say nowadays, been there, done that. I am glad, finally, to have discovered SEPTEMBER, one of the most beautiful months of the year, (if you don’t have to pull up your bootstraps) that I really never noticed before.

  2. I’m glad for your regular commentating, Ma’am (or ‘Miss’, as we call female teachers in England)! I had a feeling that, as a former teacher, you might have something to say about this one. Perhaps if Garioch were around these days, he’d be grumbling about the administrators and the careerists as well as the headmasters. I’ve heard nice things about your colourful New England autumns – they’re browner and chillier here in Northern England, I think, but still lovely.

  3. now i know where irvine welsh picked up his style! except he gave it his own special twist by incorporating the “c” word every other clause or two. and thanks for enlightening me on the meaning of “taiglie.” for the sake of verisimilitude, i read the poem in my head in the voice of the simpsons’ groundskeeper willie. that infused it with just the right note of righteous indignation.

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