Sunday, 30 November 2014


Dundee, in the last week of November. I was coming across the bridge at just the right time to see the wonderful sunset and its reflection - and that of the city and the hills - in the so-still water of the Firth of Tay. This was begun three nights ago, when a possible frost was forecast, and completed just now.

A finger-nipping chill is in the air,
and in the earth, as I dig, even now
to plant and seek to grow, for hopes of sping.
Though days continue mild, their warmth now fades,
and soon dark gathers, evening deeps to show
how near we are to solstice.
And daily flocks of chaffinches now gather,
forgetting their rivalries of summer
for winter friendships here.

At night, again, my candles blaze, to mark
a time between the times, a time so late,
a time when winter hovers on her dark brink
and darkness holds the calling owls, who greet
the winter’s chill, the driving rain,
the last wind-fallen leaves.

Yet today, with winds moderate, then stilling,
it seems December pauses on the threshold
as marigolds unfurl their still-bright petals
to drink the sun that gives life to their brilliance,
and stubbled fields and hills hold promised beauty,
the bare trees limned by low-slanting sunlight;
when evening chill returns, a gold-red sunset,
glowing, is mirrored in stillness of the firth.

(© J Blain 2014 - still draft of course.)

Thursday, 27 November 2014

NOT HOME RULE: The Smith Commission and the Lib Dems' need for critical perspective

Well, I am disappointed. Very disappointed.

Not, though, so much with the Smith Commission’s report (which you can read in full online at OK, I’d have much liked it to go further, but knew this was unlikely – the time-frame, aside from anything else, militated against true ‘home rule’ proposals. There were compromises, many of them, and not too surprisingly today’s proposals were probably most in tune with the Tory submissions. So the report, in what it says, is just about meeting (my) expectations, indeed maybe even meeting some hopes a little better than I’d feared. It might even – just might – be another stage on the way to some kind of federal situation. Britain needs to change and this may move things on.

My disappointment, therefore, is not so much with the report – it’s with the comments that followed it.  First, I thought that John Swinney’s immediate comments were a bit too negative – he, after all, was one of the people presumably agreeing to this. He could have made it more evident that he did welcome what was proposed – his short welcome appeared a grudging one, followed as it was by all that was wrong… even while largely agreeing with him I found the timing misplaced.  Nicola Sturgeon’s comments in the Scottish Parliament were rather more welcoming – she made the same points, but made them rather better and I respect that.  However, Swinney’s comments gather only a minor quibble from me.

What I find wrong, yes wrong, indeed very wrong, is the response of my old ‘home’ party – the Scottish Liberal Democrats, whom I had been thinking to rejoin. That’s been pushed aside yet again. Michael Moore presumably does know that these proposals are not ‘home rule’ and should not have used that term, but his ‘welcoming’ comments were somewhat measured. Alistair Carmichael has promised to see them through, and I respect him for this. But the ‘welcome’ of Willie Rennie, online at is ridiculous. 

I mean that. Ridiculous. Laughable. The comments are laughable for people with no knowledge of the Liberal long-standing commitment to federalism, who’ll see Rennie’s claim that ‘we argued for these Home Rule powers’ as irrelevant – and also laughable, in a very sad way, for people who do know of that long-standing commitment and see this claim and 'welcome' as a serious backsliding, and as a serious inability to take any kind of critical view of what's going on here.

The STV news tonight had a comment from Bernard Ponsonby that 'Some traditional Liberals may well say that "home rule" amounts to a whole load more powers than is on offer'. Just so. Indeed this is very far from a federal or even a ‘quasi-federal’ solution, whatever that might have meant. Do we laugh or cry?

So why could not the Scottish Liberal Democrats be honest?  Why can they not say,  ‘We have a long-standing commitment to a Federal Britain. We know this is not Home Rule. Nevertheless, we pushed for such powers as could be got at this time. We much welcome the result, and it may be a stepping stone to a true British Federalism. We certainly hope so and will continue to work for such a solution.’

Had they said that – or something like it – they would now have had a rejoined member. As it is, I’m back to weighing up my political options, feeling more disgruntled than ever – and not because of the Smith report.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Of English students and Scottish history...

This past week I was invited by my previous university (Sheffield Hallam) to meet with some colleagues in Edinburgh and there give a lecture to their second-year undergraduate students. (They had secured funding for a sociological field trip and picked Edinburgh as a good place to go to.) So I took up their offer.  They had a room booked in the top of the Museum of Scotland, and I had two hours to give the students some sense of ‘Scottishness’, the Scottish Diaspora and so forth.

So, I used a good part of the time in an attempt to give them some sense of Scotland’s history, that it wasn’t all ‘tartan’ and that we had culture, heritage, civilisation, and some moves towards ‘equality’ before that last became fashionable elsewhere.

I think my task was made very much easier by the tour of the National Portrait Gallery that students were given in the morning, before my talk. I caught up with them there and heard part of what they were given by Gallery staff – being shown portraits of men and women of the mediaeval and early modern periods, and the ‘age of progress’, with only a small group of tartan-clad chiefs and a discussion of Walter Scott’s organisation of Georgy-Porgy’s visit in his very expensive ‘highland dress’. Hooray for the tour guide I heard! She saved me at least ten minutes of a talk that was otherwise going to be too long… (and still was too long – I needed to skip over some of the sociological content of what ‘diaspora Scots’ had said to me about what this land means to them, but the students will now have the slides which have quotations in and I hope will now read these).

But the ‘Highlandism’ which is the commonest set of ideas about Scotland is still very entrenched, among much of the diaspora and among not only English students, but many Scots. And it has several sides. On the one hand is the romanticism of misty isles, rocky glens and heroic chief and warriors; on another, though, the view of such as ‘barbarous’ and so discountable. Well, I did give the students one ‘Highlander’ from history, whom they may have seen also in the Portrait Gallery, not dressed in tartan and certainly not waving a claymore; Adhamh MacFhearghais or Ferguson of Raith, born at Logierait in 1723, first a pupil in the local parish school, eventually Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, past chaplain to the Black Watch, writer who, while himself Christian, worked to develop a science of humanity… you’ll know him better as Adam Ferguson, the ‘father of sociology’.

I do hope the students enjoyed their trip, and that they will now have a sense of Scotland as a complex country which is different from their own, but not so different as to be beyond their comprehension. One of my colleagues, in the short question session at the end of my talk, gave me a lovely opportunity to say what kind of political situation I’d like to see post-referendum… but that’s for discussion now another day.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Samhain night

This was from tonight's thought on the year's turning, and seeing a crow high on a tree in the late evening's dusk, just before the pink-footed geese and greylags flew over.

Turns the Year, Turns the Wheel:
Dusk lengthens, and the wind-whirled birling leaves
fall faster now, as days draw in apace.
An evening crow sits high upon her tree
to watch and call throughout the gathering dark.
Days remain mild yet, autumn so warm,
denying Samhain’s scents, with roses flowering,
and colours blending summer days and dusk:
Deep pink of cosmos, gold of fallen leaves.

A hedgehog grunts through heaped leaves, rustling spines,
goldfinches chime night greetings to their charm
and great skeins fly, in dusk, almost unseen,
their sounds upon the night winds bourne, to herald
winter’s coming, harbingers of cold.

This night, our candles flame and bonfires blaze,
a light before the dark, remembrance yet
of spring, of youth, of glowing summer light
as we turn to the dark of sleep, of dreams,
dormancy, reflection, visions past
and future, inward seeking for each promise
of memory and hope:

                                    and so we know

that at midwinter, light will come again.

©J Blain 2014

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Reflecting on the Liberal Democrat conference and the referendum

Yes I watched this on telly (the conference). No, I didn’t see all of it – not all was on telly (including I’m told a ‘Scottish’ component on the first day which seems to have gone rather well but was private not public) and not all that was on telly was at times when I could watch.  But I’m pulled in several directions by the pieces that I did see.

First, the Liberal Democrats are NICE. They had strongly voiced and strongly voted-on things that do matter to people, often desperately. These weren’t necessarily, though, strongly worded – they were nicely worded, sometimes almost denying the passion that was voiced by some of the speakers. But at the end of the day, are these what people remember?

Second, the Liberal Democrats claim to have taken over the old Liberal policies of Home Rule – some Liberals (or Lib-Dems) articulated, again with passion, the need for a proper and fair distribution of ‘powers’ (whatever that means) to the four quarters of the universe – sorry, of the UK. And some, a few, made a strong case that the ‘powers’ for Scotland should not be conditional on those for other places which have not just undergone what we did. Indeed, today’s ‘emergency resolution’ made this plain – but again, few of the speakers really took this up, although those who did, did so very strongly. They were Scottish.

Third: I didn’t only vote ‘Yes’ but I campaigned for ‘Yes’. I did so for several reasons, both practical and emotional, but in particular that a strong Yes vote and indeed a Yes victory would give a lead into a CONFEDERAL system. What we had at stake, as one leading journalist’s opinion suggested, was ‘Indy Lite’. We didn’t get it (more senses than one here). What we have now is a system with ‘some powers’ devolved and a promise of ‘some more’ in the pipeline. Maybe.

I would like to have something along the lines suggested by Michael Moore, for the issue to be what ‘powers’ – let us say, sensibly, ‘areas’ - need to be ‘reserved’ – all others to be vested in the national*, or let's say regional or local areas as appropriate. And this gives me pause. What party or what people do express this idea? Not the SNP – though I support them in many ways – because there is need for powers to be local and not centralised: The centralisation which we are currently seeing in Scotland is not my vision.

(*Just for clarification, 'national' here means Scottish, or Welsh, or even English.)

And so, I continue to be conflicted, between Scotland as an independent state – which Scotland well could be – and Scotland as part of a United Kingdom which is compassionate, moderate and has more pulling power as a world power. But let’s revise that – UK as compassionate? I don’t currently see that, not at least to its own citizens. Similarly with moderation – how do we moderate between the new poor, the old poor, and the state which makes rules, drawing lines on a conceptual or economic map, that today seem to deny citizenship where it is most needed. I am thinking here to the numbers who registered for the referendum, who had previously not registered to vote, because they may not have considered that their vote mattered or that they were even counted as people, as humans, as political, social and hence voting beings within our land of Scotland.

As for the political world power – I will refrain from comment for now.

One thing does remain. Why, in all this flood of ‘we are doing this’ from the Lib Dems at their Glasgow conference – and yes, the venue is important – has nobody acknowledged that among the ‘45%’ of ‘Yes’ voters were almost 40% of previously-identified Lib-Dem voters?  Are we so unworthy of acknowledgment? Do we not factor into Lib-Dem thinking? If somebody would just say – ‘We know that the Lib Dems as a party campaigned for a ‘stay in the UK’ vote, but we are aware that many, many of our members and supporters voted ‘Yes’ for a number of reasons – including that they might think this as the only way to gain a sensible and sane Federal system’ – this would mean very much to me, and I think many others too.

But in an era of agonistic expression, is this just too ‘nice’ or even just too ‘Liberal’ to state?

Thursday, 18 September 2014


Waiting here, not knowing, not kenning where we are,
who we are, what we are, what we have said.
Waiting is hardest.

Tomorrow, we will know, and we need to know then
that we will work together, that we can still
take hands, whatever we did today,
and that the work of thinking, of hands and minds
of making this thing work
(whatever ‘this thing’ is)
starts then.

To all my friends and kin, with hope and vision
I promise now, to work with you, where I can,
how I can, where I can.
To create Scotland’s wealth and futures
whatever these may be.

(JB 18 September 2014, at 22.30)

Autumn evocation: A poem for the turning seasons

Not about the referendum! This was written for an event to mark the autumn equinox, this weekend. As with everything else, still draft really :)

Turns the year, turns the wheel

Scents linger, rose and honeysuckle
and perfumed herbs, now flowering,
late summer blossoms, nectar bearing
as asters bloom, actea spikes now whiten,
giving their glory to the tiring bees.

Winter skeins streak paling skies
calling ahent their echoing evocation.
Autumn beckons, nights lengthen, balancing days
as hedgehogs rustle, garnering their fuel
of small beasts, insect prey for winter sleep
And in the hedgerow, Robin sings
a winter song.

And small frogs, growing, find their shelter
in stone cairn, or in wood-pile, as the bright
colours form, of fruiting apples,
squashes, orange of pumpkins, and now, drifting,
first leaves, brown, or redden,
or turn to glowing gold.

(JB, 2014)

Monday, 1 September 2014

To my good English friends and kin

(Most of my English friends have shown quite a bit of support for the Scottish 'Yes' campaign. I would like to thank them - and to make a wee statement about this.)

I know that you know, when I vote for Independence,
that this is not about you, or your hopes or aspirations.
I am not against you,
I remain your friend.
I know, that you know, the visions for my country
I know, that you know, the way we’ve been portrayed -
the downplayed hopes, the jokes, mistaken images
(even the ‘best thing’ being the road to England):
I know that you did not believe these.

I welcome your support, your friendship beyond value.

And on September eighteenth, I know and will remember,
that you think then of my country, and you may even measure
your hopes, your aspirations, by success of mine.
And so, I look to futures still to be created,
in knowledge that you and I will continue friendships,
in separate countries, with still shared aspirations,
to freedom and justice, equality of all.
And we will talk, then, and share our mutual interest
and know we talk as equals, across a wee bit border,
in countries each with their determination,
with voice, with heart, with soul, with mind.

I know that you know, that when I vote on that day,
my hope is for creation of something that will last,
of something that enables reciprocal affections
through our so different histories,
to learn, discuss, create -
respecting each the other, with no predomination:

Scotland and England, each of us sovereign states.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

It isn't the Economy (stupid)

'It's the Economy, stupid', said Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign. Well, some people would like us to think that the Scottish Referendum is about 'the Economy' or more precisely about 'what's in it for me' (as shown in a ridiculously biased TV programme the other night) with in particular the misguided query 'but can we use the pound?' There is also of course a fear of sudden change and a number of people who are thinking that if we vote 'Yes', we will wake up on the 19th of September in a different county and with nothing - financial or otherwise - working.

This is of course quite wrong. The 19th is when the serious work of negotiation will start - changes will be worked out by people of goodwill (and there are a lot of these around, despite the extreme polarisation shown on TV) and the detailed plans will be made for the eventual transition in 2016. This vote really is not about 'the Economy' or the currency, but the current economic situation has MADE IT POSSIBLE to imagine, vote for, plan for, implement new futures in an Independent Scotland.

So, a couple of weeks back, I made a little poem that some friends have already seen. So here it is now, with a little revision. (Like everything else I write, it's still 'draft'.)

It’s not the economy (stupid)

It cannot be about ‘Economy’.
The siller matters, yes, in what it shapes;
the way we’ve gone - like others of the west -
creating worlds of trade and bold adventure,
through works of skill, of measurement and making,
of hand and brain, to make a wealthy nation,
(resourced by wind or oil or electronics)
has caused some things to happen. That is so.

Which lends, now, possibility: A choice;
that chance that so few other lands may take,
a vote enabled, not compelled, but free.
that’s where we are now – where we’ve worked to be.

To take a place to stand,
to choose, make a decision,
place a cross on paper, cast a vote,
so many things are possible.
Three hundred years ago, it was not so.
Scotland, bankrupt, betrayed by ‘allies’,
one outcome only, union. The economy ruled.

But that is past, three hundred years ago.
Time and tide move, turn and change, return
By Solway, or by Firth of Forth or Tay
we come to vote on who we are, today,
and who we could be, with so many, shared,
histories we’ve made with lands abroad
and lands so near -
India, France, Ireland, England, Canada -
we travel still, cast nets of words and wit,
explorers of the globe, we look beyond
to new horizons or to weel-worn paths
to each shape our new meanings.

Because you vote now:
not for a government, or a budget spending,
not for a generation, or a small line seeing,
but for three hundred years, or more, your visioned view:
of lives, of futures, dependent now on you.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Head, heart – or both together!

I used to say it was a ‘Head or Heart’ thing. I don’t think, any more, that it is. For, not only Heart, but Head says, weighing up the arguments – it is possible, so go, YES.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about the Scottish Referendum.

At first, I thought it was romanticism versus pragmatism, but knew that ‘romanticism’ – the ‘heart’ bit – had for me a good grip. I remember my father once saying, to some friends of mine very many years ago, that I was a practical romantic, that being the ‘worst’ kind. Not worst in terms of anything negative, worst in terms of trying to talk around.  But today, having seen what I have of both campaigns, head and heart are pulling together.

Head says, this is possible. Head says, the figures, the economy makes it possible. Head says, check out all the figures, all the possibilities, all the political arguments on both sides. Head says, look at what you don’t necessarily ‘like’ – look at the debates from the right and from the left. Look at the levels of detail given, in places you may not expect.

Heart says, the economy should not be the main reason to vote, simply because the economy does make it possible. That’s possible, not necessarily easy.

Head and Heart together say that after a YES vote, there will be work. Not everybody will be better off, certainly not instantly. But the main argument for me is that having choice, having the chance of change, having the chance to create a more equal society, opens an opportunity that has to be taken. And that is now, for me, at least as much Head as Heart.

I’ve just been watching the BBC news, and was rather disgusted by the (to me) ‘No’ slant placed on Salmond’s new Declaration at Arbroath: disgusted not just because the news was spun that way, but more because the ‘no’ campaign – as reported – is so intensely negative. Why?  The parties who claim we are ‘better together’ cannot agree, for reasons which are historical and political, on what their vision of Scotland is. Many, alas, in these parties (south of the border) appear to see Scotland as an irrelevance, and add-on, and this view appears shared by much of the so-called ‘national’ broadcasting. During the time I lived in England, the only time Scotland – one tenth of the UK population and very considerably more of its land-mass – was mentioned in ‘national’ news was when there was some kind of problem. At least, the referendum has changed that somewhat. But even today, we are bombarded with ‘national’ things which turn out to be English things; as, this week, discussion of English/Welsh/Northern Irish A-levels results. This was in turn mostly about English students – all this being fine and dandy (if the potential student populations of Wales and N. Ireland agree they had fair representation?) except that one-tenth of the university-headed population of the ‘UK’ had been doing something else, with results already posted, which had been reported as a ‘regional news’ thing.)

But back to the ‘no’ campaign. If ‘no’ predominates, what happens then?  We do not know. However much they talk about Salmond (who is not my favourite politician, by the way) refusing to articulate a ‘plan B’, there is no sense that I can make out of what would happen to Scotland following a ‘no’ vote. One party – one only – supports a Federal system, and has done so for a century or more. But it’s too late for that. If we drift back, conceptually, to the time of the Act of Union, a Federal Union seems to have been the favoured version within Scotland – but it did not happen, instead of which we had an incorporating union with some caveats and modifications – reassurances about the Scottish legal system and the Scottish Kirk. At the time of union, a federal system might well have worked, with a ratio of around 1:3 between the populations of Scotland and England. Even 272 years later, at the time of the 1979 Scottish Assembly referendum (at which a Yes vote predominated but was discounted) a devolved Scottish Assembly had potential to lead gradually to a federal system. But what followed that vote was an increasing focus on London, the drawing off of young Scots south, the continued depletion of our country, despite the resources that had become evident.

I think that we cannot now go back. A federal system is not a possible goal, or at least not through a ‘no’ vote. The main English parties do not favour this, and the ‘powers’ promised need to be regarded with great caution. After all, we have that model of the failed 1979 vote and the promises made at that point that ‘something better’ would be proposed if we voted ‘no’ then. How long did it take! How many people did not vote because they were led to expect that ‘something better’?

So for me, today, ‘head’ says that an independent Scotland is possible – and that there are a range of views within the Yes campaign, people from different positions in the political spectrum (yes, including conservatives), who are presenting their approaches. After a YES vote they are pledged to work together to enable and negotiate the ‘first version’ of our Scotland. Then, an election in 2016, in which the different political stripes argue their cases, but all based in the terms which have been negotiated after September 18th 2014 by the joint team, we vote for who we want to represent us in Edinburgh. 

And, ‘heart’ cautions me that there are many people who do not wish to be separated, in a ‘different country’, from their children, their siblings, their cousins who are now in England for jobs and have their families there. I can feel this, sympathise. But the phenomenon of ‘The Scot Abroad’ is one that has lasted for many years and we have kin in many places – in my own case most closely in Canada, but also in Australia and New Zealand, in South Africa and India, as well as those now in England. So, we may need to find a way to deal with Heart, while knowing, from financial evidence and from the lack of cohesion of ‘no’, that Head says a resounding YES.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

I don't know how to be 'a poet'

This is one of the mysteries, to me, on how a person declares themselves to be 'X', whatever that 'X' may be. From various research findings, men are better at this than women - it may be something about learnt confidence and entitlement. Some things are more clear than others, as in having a degree in something, being employed to do something (teacher, sociologist, etc.)

But anyway, this is a piece I wrote the other evening. It is a wee thing changed from the version I sent to a friend then, but not much, so is still rather 'draft'. And though it's in part about the above, it's also much about those who have expressed their meanings and now are not heard, and the fear of 'death' disturbing me ('timor mortis conturbat me') is about their, my, our, silencing.

The friend I sent the first draft to assured me that some people do still remember Henryson, Dunbar and the others.... but do you? Who now does remember the Makars, if it is not your trade or practice to so remember them? (And for all you English friends, have you ever heard their names?)

Anyway, here it is -


I don’t know how a person is named ‘poet’
respected even, acknowledged in some sense,
as giving something which encapsulates
meaning, politics, humour  - poking fun
as social critique, of their own seen bent
creating something that then grips
imaginations, feelings, knowings, senses:
yet words promoted, told to us as gold.

So what separates poetry from myth?
(And so much myth is poetry.)

I don’t have a degree in poetry
(other things, yes, worked for, not in that)
so I continue, in my small way, weaving
words, wit, maybe wisdom of a kind
where I can, where it may be heeded,
to bring meaning, focus, assonance,
alliteration, where it matters -
or even rhymes -
to tease a hearer’s response with their own words…

(maybe it matters not, as who would read or speak this stuff?)

Yet in this place, the echoes fall
older hearings, voices silenced
time and death wait for us all -
by what (or whom) is poetry licenced?
or is that licence so constrained
that only they may speak who’re trained?

So now, I bring to mind the Makaris,
the shapers, sounding rhyme and words before,
who spoke to Scotland’s people, from their knowledge,
their hearts, their being, springing from the land,
within their words of weaving, crafting, making,
piecing honour, spinning webs of history
to lords or bishops, kings or commons, all.
I think on those who, hearing, gave devotion
I echo words respecting craft and grace…

But who speaks for them now? Who will recall,
Henryson, Lindsay or all else? When Dunbar wrote
he mourned the loss of many gone before.
Their words are not remembered: so for us,
words die in breathing, some deserved, some lost:

and as a Makar of this latter day,
timor mortis conturbat me.

Friday, 3 January 2014

A new venture

Today I spent a couple of hours writing ‘interview’ responses for the Wild Hunt Blog – they are now up there at  The reason – I’m planning to teach an online course for Cherry Hill Seminary, starting this month. This will be on landscape, Animism, Heathenry, delving a bit into the Eddas and into seidr.

So, something different, and yet based in the research I’ve done and my own understandings of landscape. I would like students to start with where they are, looking at what is around them and how they relate to that context.  I won’t say more about the course here just now though.