Goodbye Edinburgh, and thank you!


A final morning stroll in the garden, before the crowds arrive for the day. My time as resident poet in Edinburgh is over. It has been wonderful in so many ways. The staff of the garden are delightful and I have felt so welcomed during my month here. Thank you to everyone who helped, chatted, pointed out plants, everything. I return home to the wild wood with a notebook stuffed full of jottings and scribblings, seeds of poems that I will germinate and tend in the weeks to come, and hopefully plant out here before the project is over.

Thank you Edinburgh. Moran taing.

Yew, the last tree

Today we reached the end of the alphabet, with a poetry reading in the Queen Mother’s memorial pavilion (see here). It is a surreal little building, lined with shells and cones, and I had not had a chance to use it until today.

The rain provided the perfect excuse to shelter in it, though by the time we had finished reading, we had brought the sun out. Perfect for a walk, in alphabetical order, through the trees. There were a couple of cheats to save having to cross the entire gardens and back to see one plant. I’ll be asking the tree curator if there’s any chance of them putting some gorse, heather and blackthorn near the fairy wood. Or maybe I should just ask the fairies?

I read all my tree poems, which you can read from the Gaelic Tree Alphabet pull- down menu – and please feel free to add your own. There are also a bunch of titbits of folklore, ecological and practical factoids about each tree species there.

We then read favourite poems by other poets, working our way once more through the alphabet, before going to visit the trees themselves.

My choice of tree poems is as follows:

Birch: A’ Chraobh Beithe by Maoilios Cambeul
Rowan: Rowan Berry by Norman MacCaig
Alder: Alder by Kathleen Jamie
Willow: autumn evening by Julie Johnstone
Ash: Trees and Stars by William Heinesen
Hawthorn: During Dinner by Robin Robertson
Oak: I pause beneath the old oak one rainy day by Olav H Hauge
Holly: Holly by A R Ammons
Hazel: The Hazel Trees by Hadewijch of Antwerp
Bramble: Shrubbery by Jo Shapcott
Ivy: Gort by Aonghas Macneacail
Blackthorn: Sloe Gin by Seamus Heaney
Elder: Sambucus Nigra by Colin Will
Pine: After Basho by Alan Spence
Gorse: Whins by George Gunn
Heather: Scotland Small? Hugh MacDiarmid
Aspen: Binsey Poplars by Gerald Manley Hopkins
Yew: Churchyard Song by Liz Lochhead

All these (plus a couple of hundred more) will be in the anthology, Into the Forest, which will be published later this year, by Saraband.

Other favourite tree poems anyone?

Everything new – the aspen renga

Here is the renga we wrote at the Botanics. Thanks to Colin Will for being the master, and to all the poeticipants!

Everything new

A 20-verse (nijuin) renga held at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 27th July, 2013

sun going in
sun coming out
poplars clapping

tall lads
from Lombardy

until the new moon
only bumble bees
and butterflies

wasps turn an old fence
into a new nest

white space arrives
between times
thorough and lost

a long tea break
throwing snowballs

quick water settles
and branches out
little wet presents

your laughter
splashes my heart

kids grow up
so fast these days
she’s taller than I am

without moving their feet
lilies dance

little boy comes in
wants to see
to the other side

hearing the geese
high above me

a pewter bothy

scuffing leaves
until you laugh again

a salmon fights
for home, back
but not back again

four girls
in search of a tan

pop the cork
slainte mhath
and how are you

who folded the petals away
so carefully

pale clouds
of spring
clothe the branches

everything new
under the sun.

Renga hosted by Mandy Haggith, led and with a schema by Colin Will. Poets in the circle: Eva, Mary, Barbara, Roger, Mandy, Mitch, Colin, Des, Anita

An aspen renga

Renga is an ancient Japanese way of writing poetry together. Like many of the trees I have been studying in the past few weeks, it is an ancestor, and its descendants include haiku and tanka, familiar to most poets. It consists of up to 20 verses, alternating two and three lines long.

The poem is written verse by verse. In each round of writing, everyone taking part writes a verse, and the renga master chooses, with a bit of debate among those gathered, which one fits the poem best. We try to flow on from the previous stanza, but also follow a schema, created by the Renga master, which indicates what each verse will be about ( summer, the beginning of love, a tree etc.) By the end, everyone has contributed something to the poem.


Colin Will was our renga master today. Colin used to work at the Botanics, before retiring to life as a poet, so it was lovely to have him lead our afternoon, celebrating the aspen tree. Aspen is a poplar, and appropriately enough the Chinese Pavilion where we spent the afternoon is overlooked by poplars. They applauded our best verses and found their way into the poem.

Thanks to everyone who came and took part – the process was delightful and the result is a mosaic of funny, thoughtful and observant poetry. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

It will be posted here as soon as I have been able to confer with the renga master about the exact text.

Meanwhile here’s the tulip tree flower, a kind of Magnolia. Its ancestors predate the extinction of the dinosaurs. It is a huge tree, with limbs like a beech, decked with these extraordinary and beautiful flowers.


Flow and flower

Today’s ‘tree’ is heather. We drank heather ale last night, and read the legend of the little people of Scotland who kept it secret for so long (where did the Fraoch brewers get the recipe from?). This afternoon, I am trying to convince people that, if you’re the size of a bee, heather can be really quite a big tree!

This morning, I achieved what poets always hope for.




Since I took up residence, I’ve been perplexed, then fascinated, by how the water works in the garden, and finally I got permission to press the buttons.


After a tantalising pause, a stretch of un-time of no water falling, other than in my mind, waiting, watching the flowers growing, the pond stagnating, eventually faint gurgles in the plumbing, then a cough, a splutter, and finally, with the smell of a tropical toilet flush from an algae-rich cistern, a gush of water. So there it is, white water frothing under the cascade. (The video is on the walking with poets Facebook page.)

Some little people seem to get the heather honey thing…