Past, Present or Possibility

This poem was written 25 years ago by John Strachan, a native of Yell, and harks back to 1893. It spans 3 centuries¬†and resonates with where we find ourselves today. As I travel about Shetland I hear more knowledge, sense and awareness of environmental changes by talking to the islanders than from listening to the many ‘experts’ talking but not acting.

Past, Present or Possibility

By John Strachan
first published in Shetland Times 1995

Shetland dialect


Sittin apo dis aald ston waa
Tae aese me back fae da kishie’s weight,
I tink aboot da wye o hit aa,
Da paet hill dat I sometimes hate,  
Dey say a Viking fan da wye
Ta cuist da paet an mak hit burn,
Bit I tink it dat wis ae muckle lie.
Tae an aalder fock yet we sood turn.
Mebbe learned fock wad at me laach,
Bit tae me da Pecht wis aye da first
Ta cuist da paet ta haet his muckle broch
An warm ale ta quench his trist.
Bit whaat tink wiser fock dan me?
Will dey be dain ta keep dem warm
I da faur aff year o ninety-tree?
In a hunder year whit’ll be da norm?


Sittin warm apo me tractor saet
Up here apo da tap o da hill,
I can see da tings dat mak me haet
An aften maks me hert staand still.
Muckle machines da paet rippin oot
No sae much fir mans need es fir dir greed.
Whaur wance flew da haegrie an da coot,
An grew da hedder an da reed.
Hit’s a terrible time wir livin trow
Whan da rapacious haand o man
Gengs aboot da laand laek a muckle lowe,
Tearin an burnin aa dey can.
Ir dey ony hop fir future days
Whan da paet is aa lang gane?
Will man manage ta shange his wyes,
Or will he wi da aert be slain?


Sittin apo an aald ston waa,
Me mind on days o yesteryear,
An da greedy fock dat ruined hit aa.
Dey fir da future shed nae tear
Whaat I joost canna understaand
Is dat dey kentna da aald laws
Dat whan du tampers wi da laand
Du raeps joost whaat hit is du saas.
Dir nae paet ida high hills noo
Nae fysh athin da deep blue sea.
Du’ll geng faur afore du sees a coo,
An dir no mony yowes alang da lea.
Pollution hit kilt da seashore tings;
Da sells, da birds, an life i da tang,
An still mankind his sang he sings

English translation


Sitting upon this old stone wall,
To ease my back from the basket’s weight
I think about the way of it all,
The peat hill that I sometimes hate.
They say a Viking found the way
to cut the peat and make it burn
But I think that was one big lie
To an older folk we should yet turn.
Maybe learned folk would at me laugh
But to me the Pict was always first
To cut peat to heat his large broth
And warm ale to quench his thirst.
But what think wiser folk than me
Will they be doing to keep them warm
In that far off year of ’93?
In a hundred years what will be the norm?


Sitting warm upon my tractor seat
Up here upon the top of the hill
I can see the things that make me hot
And often make my heart stand still.
Large machines, the peat ripping out
Not so much for man’s need as for his greed.
Where once flew Herons and the Coot
And grew the Heather and the Reed
It’s a terrible time we’re living through
When the rapacious hand of man
Goes about the land like a large flame
Tearing and burning all they can
Is there any hope for future days
When the peat is all long gone
Will man manage to change his ways?
Or will he with the earth be slain?


Sitting upon an old stone wall
My mind on days of yesteryear
And the greedy folk that ruined it all
They for the future shed no tear
What I just cannot understand
Is that they knew not the old laws
That when you tamper with the land
You reap just what it is you sow.
There’s no peat on the high hills now
No fish within the deep blue sea
You’ll go far before you see a cow
And there aren’t many sheep along the lea.
Pollution has killed the seashore things,
The Seals, the Birds and life in the sea weed
And still mankind his song he sings

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