Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

North-East Legacy – The Scottish Banner

December 31st, 2011

P1140229A SLIM volume of poetry with a faded dust jacket and dedicated to a friend by the poet , a small watercolour painting signed with just the artist’s initials ‘VJ’, and a single sheet of writing paper with a poem written in an unsteady hand will come under the auctioneer’s hammer in the next few weeks.

The poet and artist was Violet Jacob, neglected for some years after her death in 1946, but whose writing is deservedly gaining increased recognition today. In her day she ranked alongside other Scottish literary greats such as poets Helen Cruickshank and Marion Angus. She was admired and published by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid and her novels, at their best, stand comparison with John Buchan, RL Stevenson and, some say, even Sir Walter Scott.

Violet Jacob, born Violet Augusta Mary Frederika Kennedy-Erskine in 1863, grew up at House of Dun (now owned by the National Trust for Scotland) near the north-east port of Montrose in the county of Angus. The Kennedy-Erskines were an ancient, aristocratic Scottish family, landed gentry to the soles of their boots and Violet’s ancestors numbered some of Scotland’s most notable and influential figures. Although the family traces its ancestry back to the mid fourteenth century the present House of Dun dates from 1730, a classical early Georgian mansion designed by the elder William Adam, foremost Scottish architect of his day.

With this privileged background it might surprise those who have not encountered her before to find that some of her best prose and poetry is written in the authentic north-east vernacular of the ploughmen and cottars who worked the land on the Mains of Dun, the home farm of the Dun estates.

Unusually for a child from such a high-born background, Violet appears to have been actively encouraged to mix with the farm workers and their bairns who welcomed her into their families. As is the way with youngsters her speech slipped naturally and unselfconsciously in and out of the local Angus vernacular and, in a manner of speaking, she grew up bi-lingual.

Dun House stands on a prominence, a Gaelic dun, overlooking rich arable land that runs down to the shores of the inland tidal estuary of the Montrose Basin and the River South Esk, one of Scotland’s premier salmon fishing rivers. The Basin has always been an important wildfowl refuge but today it holds a position of international importance for over-wintering pink footed geese in particular, but also for waders and other migrant visitors.

The pink foots’ metallic honking calls, sometimes harsh, other times shrill and musical would have been a familiar sound to Violet as the great skeins flew noisily in from their summer breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen. Their ragged chevrons would have passed directly over Dun House as they thankfully glided the last mile of their long flight to touch down on the Basin’s welcome mud flats for their winter break.

I inherited a love of Violet Jacob’s poetry from my father. He was not an outwardly sentimental man but, like her, he was Angus born and bred and her rich use of the north-east Doric, her descriptive powers, her affection for the people and love for the land undoubtedly touched a sentimental chord in him.

We would sit in his car at the top of the Garvock Hill, high above the Aberdeenshire village of Laurencekirk where, on a clear day you can look the length of the broad, fertile plain of Strathmore and see the church spires of Perth to the west, and those of Aberdeen to the east, and Father read me his favourite Violet Jacob poems.

One of the best-loved was ‘The Wild Geese’, which appears in the collection soon to be auctioned, where the poet is in England but her heart longs for her Angus homeland. Her raw sense of homesickness is summed up in the last verse –
“And far abune the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o’ beatin wings wi’ their heids towards the sea,
And aye their cryin’ voices trailed ahint them on the air …….”

A number of the vernacular poems have transferred quite naturally into the folk tradition which tells us a lot about the integrity of the poet’s writing. The late Jim Reid, one of Scotland’s best loved folksingers and songwriters whose music, more than most, evokes the humour and romance of the north-east, greatly admired Violet Jacob. Jim set a number of her poems to music and ‘Rohallion’ and ‘The Wild Geese’ (titled ‘Norlan Wind’), especially, have become folk classics of the twentieth century.

I have a love affair with the wild geese – the hounds of heaven, someone called them, and it’s easy to understand why when you hear their yelping calls blown in on the wind. I rush to get a good view of them whenever I hear their “cryin’ voices”. For me they are the authentic voice of winter.

It’s strange how a chance visit to the auction rooms and noticing a familiar book of poetry sparked off such a train of thoughts and memories.

Perhaps my most poignant and abiding memory is of my father’s interment in Montrose’s Sleepyhillock Cemetery, which is situated by the side of Montrose Basin. It is long-established, with mature trees and shrubs, a peaceful place to visit, epitomising its gentle name. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, three geese – pink footed I think, because they were so vocal – flew overhead with a clamour of farewells.

Father was a great outdoors man who loved and enjoyed the countryside. He was also a keen wildfowler and, in his time, shot a lot of geese on Montrose Basin. Father’s departure from this world, the flight of geese and their salute, were fitting leave-takings on both sides and the geese had the last word!

Written on Saturday, December 31st, 2011 at 10:38 am for Claivers.