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Old Collie
Hame Tongue
The Big Mistake
Baxter’s old ram sang the blues (an extract)
The Moleman’s Apprentice
Conversing with Angels
Queen of the Sheep
The man who wanted to hug cows

Click here to hear Jim Carruth perform some of his work at the West Port Book festival with Chloe Morrish in 2010.


Old Collie

While milking together
my father shouts across the parlour
an idea for my next poem

How about a working collie–
one that's on its last legs.
I tell him it has been done before.

Unwilling to chase this sentimental stick,
I leave it well alone,
turn away, but feel it lying there

becoming hair and bone
crouching low, resting its arthritic frame
flecked muzzle flat on its front paws.
Lifting itself slowly to its feet
it sniffs out the few short steps to my father
where we both knew it was bound to go.

(from Prodigal)

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'Does not the ear test words as the tongue tastes food?'
Job 12:11.

You pick away at the meal on the plate,
this dish I've laboured over for hours.
Of no interest to you, the journey taken
from sink, to board, to pan, to table,
the culinary challenge to please your palate
from sparse ingredients and empty shelves.
I offer up a smile both fragile and needy,
fixated by that thing you do with the fork—
poking and splitting, then shifting to the side,
using tuts as punctuation. Texture? Lumpy.
Colour? Insipid. Smell? Offensive.
Pointing with your knife, you pontificate.
Come on, trust the true touch of your tongue.

(from Rider at the Crossing)

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Far from the breezy freedom of stubbled fields
we were the reluctant prisoners of the big shed.

Left behind to put away safe the stringed harvest
our short wordless journeys to lift and stack, back
to front, until bales were jammed against the roof,
careful not to choke the elevator's incessant feed.
All day, tractors and trailers arrived in the steading
high loads swaying round the final tight corner
with the unsteady grace of an uncle returned
from the dancing, serenading stars, fou as a puggie.

No less musical the relentless putt putt judder
of an old elevator, black smoke signalling its effort
the stiff lever cranking up the angle of ascent
the conveyer's ribbed belt struggling to send up
single file blocks of hay to be caught at the top
by coarse-handed inmates of that shrinking space
bare backs hunched inches from the tin's hot girdle
a sauna stinging eyes blood red with salted sweat.

Raw fingers gripping twine sensed their weight
and shape, and knew the perfect fit of bale to bale
that would interlock, secure that covered stack
until winter when each in turn would be released
returned to the very fields that first offered them up
broken open like bread on the now barren ground
sustaining the rough-haired heifers until the thaw.

(from the collection Working the Hill)

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Watershed (Comar nan Allt)

The first sounds spoken
from the spring’s core
are of a new beginning
of people and place

a poetry that bubbles
and gargles to the surface
to leave this watershed
flow east and west

in a rush of words
that tumble and fall
to join the conversations
of two great rivers

a voice calling out
I belong I belong
adding to the language
of sea and ocean.

(text from the sculpture Arria a collaboration with Andy Scott)

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Hame Tongue

Beltane fire sproots frae oor Fergie tractor
As it pleuchs lines ablow the gull rabble.
It will saison aw the reiks o Renfrewshire
Workin the auld leid o seed an stubble,
A constant diesel muse; while we harra
The guid grun, shake dialect frae the shaw,
Gaither bushels o wirds frae everie furrow,
Steck em in the barn as turses o straw.
Athort the law a flock o blackface yowes
Pairt sweet phrases o cock’s-foot an fescue
Wi the Friesian coos ower on the knowes;
Bit oor prood kintra tongues mean naucht to you
Fir ye hiv turnt awa sae fail to see
Fields o warkin beauty an their poetry.


(From the collection Grace Notes 1959)

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The Big Mistake

the shepherd on the train told me


is to clip hill milking ewes too soon.


I put my newspaper down;

he'd got my attention.


Nothing puts the milk off them quicker

than just a day like last Wednesday.

And when it goes off at this time of year,

it never comes back .


His warning continues

They never get so rough in the backend,

and have less protection

against the storms and winter chill.


He glances up,

checks his crook in the luggage rack

And another thing

is that the wool neither weighs so heavy

nor looks so well. It's the new growth

that brings down the scales.


A fleece from a ewe that's near

hasn't the same feel as one from a ewe

that has plenty of rise and a good strong stoan.


In the beginning of July the new wool on a thin ewe

will grow more in one week under the fleece

than it will do in three with the fleece clipped off.


He summarised his argument for me


Experienced flock masters never clip hill stocks

before the second week of July.

In terms of the sheep's sufferings

a strong sun is little less severe than a cold rain.


He stopped there

looked out the window at the passing fields

then fell asleep to Waverley

content that a stranger in a suit

had listened to his wisdom;

this wisdom I now share with you.


(from the collection - Cowpit Yowe)

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Baxter’s old ram sang the blues (an extract)

It began the day the collies rounded up the flock
brought them back for the shearing one short.
It was Baxter that went looking for the ram
finding the animal on a rise near the gorse
breathless under the heavy burden of wool:
all droop and dangle, aroma of foot rot damp
With a gushing bloom of slack jawed drool
the ram turned to him and burst into song.
It’s true, for one wet week last summer
Baxter’s old ram he sang the blues

(from the fable - Baxter's old ram sang the blues)

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The Moleman’s Apprentice

surfaced one Friday night
at the village hall
and asked her to dance,
leading the way
through the crowded floor,
parting couples
who closed in tight
behind them.
All evening she stared
into his small eyes
felt his first beard
soft furred
against her face,
but now that’s not
what she remembers
nor his dirty long nails,
his spade-like hands,
his proud boasting
that in a first week
measured in pelts
he had plucked the dead
from their dark;
instead it’s the incident
near the end,
when some joker
flicked a switch
cut the power,
his shudder and scream
as the night snapped shut.

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Up late
while the last of the sticks
crackled on the fire.
I’d watch my mother

hold the wool end
to her mouth
licking a point
pushing it through an eye of silver.

Caught in the softening glow
her face hovered
above the wooden frame.
With a kingfisher arc

the needle dived and surfaced
pulling out rainbows
time and again
double back and cut.

Her hands rough and calloused
hacked deep with shadow
thumb nail snecked black
crushed by a chain in the bull pen.

During the day these hands:
held sodden bales
(strings sliced deep into skin);
carried calves minutes old

slippery as eels;
gripped frozen milk pails;
graiped silage into troughs;
dried small tears;

dressed four of us for school;
wrenched green shaws
from ribbed carrots;
chopped potatoes and leeks

that simmered for hours
for one of those thick sweet soups
we could taste
as we stepped off the bus.

The hands
my daughter watches today
threading colours
through a new canvas.

(from the collection - High Auchensale)

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Conversing with angels

Recently you’ve glimpsed them more often
as you drive quiet roads to your son’s farm
through the black mornings before dawn.

Your headlamps launch these night guardians
from flashes of eyes and ruffled feathers
into silent prophets of white-winged flight.

Last night you stood on the cottage doorstep
at the boundary where village becomes field
offered up a wordless invocation to the stars.

A messenger high up in the old bell tower
delivered an answer: unearthly and hoarse
as many have done throughout your life.

You replied and another one joined in
echoing from a small congregation of oak
and a third spoke up from beyond the river.

Today you recount to me those conversations:
a voice reaffirming its connection to the unseen;
and a faith that calls out confident of response.

(from the collection - High Auchensale)

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Queen of the Sheep

The Queen of the Sheep lies in state
on a small hummock,
in the open air,
through the hottest day of the year.

No long illness,
no special message,
no official announcement,
she just rolled over and died
like many of her kind before:
a pure bred Texel.
Blood lines don’t matter
when you’re gone.

Laid out in buzzing robes,
inane grin of rotten teeth,
thick rubber tongue.
Black feathered courtiers
bow to her eye sockets.
Her own incense is a rank royal odour.
Death in this heat rules the senses.

Trailing a cortege of flies and crows,
I drag the bloated corpse to the gate
by her small insubstantial legs:
a less than dignified exit.
My cheeks are tracked by sweat not tears.

The followers refuse to rise in the heat
sit around uninterested;
there’s always another.
The queen of the sheep is dead.
Long live the queen.

(From the collection - High Auchensale)

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A single dog is sent away by.
Mothers a day’s warmth in their bodies,
rise reluctant from nests of flattened grass;
barge hard squeeze, through to the narrow lane.

Ignoring collie and stick,
stiff legged stragglers stop,
Cough slurpy green splatters at my feet.
Steam rise, tail strands dab runes

Where eager flies blacken scab and wound.

The herd waddles on tender hooves
between hedges of hawthorn;

vein ridged udders swing milk-heavy;

cracked teats drip to cooling tar.

Bodies of coarse hair, stones on a river bed,

bump and rumble in the gentle flow of their lowing

The sun dawdles a slow decline.

Light stretches a blessing across their backs;

draws me into the undertow

that’s pulling us all back home.

(from the collection - Bovine Pastoral)

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The man who wanted to hug cows

his good days, he’d walk out form the village
lose himself in country lanes, drawing blood from brambles
or stare across fields mumbling to himself.

They called him professor though no one knew his past;

the postman brought rumours of separation and breakdown.

When first asked, farmers said no.
One relented, pointing him to a quiet Friesian.
“Seemed harmless enough” he told his neighbour later
but he watched him closely from the gate that first time,

uneasy at the nervousness of the stranger.

Left in peace, for long afternoons
he’d cling around folds of the heifer’s neck;
whisper an echo in the beast’s dark ear,
her big eyes and soft rough muzzle would turn to him.

Slow-motion slavers and heavy breath fell across his face

To those who listen the farmer’s wife still recalls
finding him asleep in the grass – a smile within the herd;
his head resting on thick-hared warmth,
lulled by the rise and fall of maternal ribs,
the beat of a larger heart.

(from the collection - Bovine Pastoral)

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