Tuesday 10 October 2023

Wilson's Ornithology & Burds in Scots by Hamish MacDonald, illustrations by Alexander Wilson

The front cover of Wilson's Ornithology and Burds in Scots 

Alexander Wilson (1766 - 1813) was a self taught poet and working class radical from Paisley in the West of Scotland who emigrated to America and became the author of the nine volume American Ornithology. Some of the illustrations from that work are reproduced here with new poems from Hamish MacDonald, written in the Scots that Wilson himself would have spoken. 

The book opens with a brief overview of Wilson's life and work by Paul Walton, Head of Species and Habitats at RSPB Scotland.

The Scots language in MacDonald's poetry is often jaunty

The heron stalks the lanely streams                     (lanely = lonely)
 feedin on minnas an fisherman's dreams             (feedin = feeding, minnas = minnows (a  species of                                                                                 small fish) an = and.)
from Heron
and offers neat descriptions of the character of the featured birds:

They'll meet in rowth o nummers                    (rowth = plenty; nummers = numbers)
Tae haud ther raucous cooncil high                (Tae = to; haud = hold; ther = their; cooncil = council)
Up on the City Chaumers                                (Chaumers = Chambers)

from The Glesga Stookie / The Glasgow Starling
Apart from the titles of the poems, there is no translation from the Scots to English and no glossary, which may make some poems in the collection tricky to read for anyone outside Scotland, and in fact inside Scotland as though most people in this country know some Scots, not everyone has as rich a Scots vocabulary as does MacDonald. Do you need to understand every word to appreciate the poetry? That probably depends on the individual reader! (I had to look up the word rowth when putting together my glossary for the extracts above). 

The illustrations of American birds are matched with poems about (mostly) Scottish birds. Mostly the matching seems to be quite close, the poem Waxwings (about the Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) found in Scotland, though here just generally known as the Waxwing) is paired with a painting that includes a bird labelled by Wilson as a Cedar Bird - now known as the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrurum). Sometimes the pairing is less obvious, which can be slightly disconcerting.

Overall, this is a beautiful book for anyone who loves birds, particularly those who speak or at least understand Scots.

Wilson's Ornithology & Burds in Scots. Illustrations by Alexander Wilson, poems by Hamish MacDonald. Published (2020) by Scotland Street Press


A note on Scottish languages: the three languages usually considered to be the languages of Scotland are: English; Scots (which is closely related to English in some ways, but very different in others) and Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language very different from English or Scots. Of course, many other languages are spoken in Scotland, including Italian, Punjabi, Polish and Chinese.

Learn more about the Scots language here

Learn more about Scottish Gaelic here


Meanwhile, three of my haiku are included in the latest issue of HaikuNetra.



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