Till Houletgless an the Messenger o God


Mony’s the holy man wha wad be gled tae absent hissel fae this marounjous warld an aw its coorse realities, but it coud niver be said that the Bishop o Dunkeld wis yin o them. Yon messenger o God wis a man o action; an whenever there wis tithes tae be collectit, or dens o ill-daein tae be leukit ower, the bishop wis shuir tae be richt in there wi baith his sleeves rolled up. He especially liked distreebutin the alms, if that’s whit ye wantit tae caw it, and that wis jist whit he wis daein in front o the kirk yon sunny Monday morn.

“Here!” he shoutit at some aumous auld wumman, “Ah’m jist efter giein a penny tae yer man – is this you cadgin yin as weel? Whit, dae ye think ah’m made o money?”

The bishop had lang syne makkit alms-giein intae a kind o game wi hissel, wrastlin tae see hou mony gaberlunzies he coud turn awa empty-haundit, an hou mony o his pennies he coud manage tae hing ontae. But he’d had a sair couple o weeks o it in the kirk, whit wi wan thing or anither, an this Monday he wis airtin tae beat even his ain record.

“Aye, weel, tell yer faither ah dinnae care hou seek he is, he comes alang himsel or he gits naething. Ah’m no giein ony pennies tae ony bairns.”

“Awa wi ye! Ah’d be as weel giein yer penny straucht tae Tam the tavern-keeper an cuttin oot the middle man!”

“You! Ye’ve a cheek! Gin ye can affuird that egg ah saw ye ramshin Seturday past, ye needna ony catter aff o me!”

An sae it went, until the hale sorry munge o them had been sent awa yin bi yin, an the bishop wi eneuch siller still in his pootch tae mak a cantie jingle. But as he turnt back taewart the kirk, the bishop’s hert sank tae see yin mair body waitin there, leanin wi his rig anenst the doorframe o the kirk. The man’s airms wir foldit thwart his chist, his richt cuit crossed ower his left.

“Faither,” the chiel said, noddin.

Tho the man had cam tae toun anely a fortnicht afore, the bishop awready kent Till Houletgless for a smatchet an a God-left wratch. It wis weel-kent that he’d nae suiner lowpt doun aff his mare than he’d been oot cuitlin the laubourers no tae pey their tithes tae the kirk, as weel as a hantle o ither ongauns for which there wis nae proof but plenty o suspeecion. The bishop ee’d Till waurily as he climt the staps.

Yer Grace tae you,” the bishop said, “An ah’d hae thocht a chiel that knaws the Guid Beuk as weel as you mak oot tae wad ken eneuch tae ken that.”

Till smirlt an noddit his heid in greement.

“Aye, ah must hae misst that bit,” he said, “Mynd, it wis awfy haird tae concentrate on ma readins the morn wi the laundlaird pappin aw ma stuff oot the windae.”

“Aw aye?” the bishop said wioot meetin Till’s gaze. Till unfoldit his airms an crosst them again.

“Ah dinnae faut the loun, ken. Telt us the guid fowk o the toun had been pushin doon on him. Noo ah’m no shuir wha the guid fowk o the toun are, but ah’d howp tae ken them when ah saw them.”

The bishop said naething, but glenced nervously at the sliver o space atween Till an the doorwey.

“Sae onywey, faither,” Till went on, “That’s me rooked. Ah’d gied the fella the next week in advance, an shuir ah’m no gittin that back again. Ah’d ride on if ah coud, but ma wee dun mare’s needin shoddit, an ah hinnae a penny tae ma name. Sae when ah heard fae a carlie ye were dolin oot siller the day, ah thocht ah’d come doon an see for masel.”

The bishop, suddently sensin a shift in the balance o pouer, strauchtened hissel up.

“Ask an it shall be gien ye,” he said importantly.

Till thrust oot his haun an leukt at him.

“Weel, here’s me askin,” he said.

At the sicht o Till’s empty palm in front o him, the bishop’s ain fist clencht ticht aroond his hantle o pennies. They crinched aroond in his pootch like a haunfu o gravel.

“Ah didnae mean ask me,” he snashed, “Ah’m jist the messenger. Ah meant ask the Laird. Aw things are in his boonty. He giveth…”

“An he taketh awa,” Till said, staunin up. “Aye, it’s got the lot, that beuk. Weel, ye’ve gied me plenty tae think aboot, faither. Ah’ll see ye later.”

An Till Houletgless dicht his hauns aff an walked across the square.


When the letter fund its wey intae the messenger’s hauns the next morn, he didnae ken whit tae mak o it. There wis some unco airticles cam his wey, makkit oot tae the maist unlikely addresses – but he’d niver yet tae deleever a message backit oot tae ‘God’, an he wisnae shuir at aw whit tae dae wi it. Wi nae sma embarrassment he scleusht alang tae the kirk an haundit the letter tae the bishop.

“Ah ken it’s no for yersel, yer Grace,” he yammert, “But ah couldnae think wha else tae…”

The bishop wheesht him wi a wave. The letter wis unsealt, an its attercap haundwritin furlt oot alang a pagefu o inkblots an stourie fingerprints.

Dear God,

Ah howp this message finds ye weel. Ah’ll no fash ye wi aw the uisual havers, as ye’re nae dout a busy man these days, an ah ken ye ken wha ah’m ur.

Listen, ah’ll tell ye whit it is – ah’m needin a wee tap o a penny tae git ma mare reshod, an when ah asked yer freend the bishop for it, he said ah shoud apply in writin directly tae yersel. He micht no hae said writin, tae be fair, but ah tried shoutin an that didnae seem tae wirk. Onywey, ye ken yersel, when ye ettle at tellin a thing in person, it ayeweys comes oot wrang.

Weel, ah’m no wantin tae pit ye on the spot, but ah coud dae wi yon penny suin as ye’re able tae spare it. Ah seem tae mynd ye’re no awfy keen on usury – or is that some ither body ah’m thinkin o? – but ye’ll hae yer money back in full bi the end o the month.

Thanks again. Ah’m an awfy big admirer o aw yer wirks, especially the trees an aw that. Brilliant.

Aw the best,


The bishop’s mynd wis racin as he read the letter, yinst an then a second an a third time. On yin haun, he didnae want tae gie a faithless skellum like Till Houletgless onythin mair than a guid lounderin. But then, on the ither haun… Tae send a haithen sic as Till an actual message frae God, an breeshle him oot o toun intae the bargain – yon wad be veectory sae hale-an-hauden as tae mak the bishop’s heid birl jist bi thinkin aboot it. Efter hummin an hawin ower it hauf the mornin, the bishop finally wapped up a haufpenny in an orral o paper an haundit it tae the messenger.

“Tak this tae the scoondrel yon letter was frae,” he said, “An mak shuir he thinks it’s fae God.”

The messenger left, an for the lave o the morn the bishop idly imagined a newlins repentant Till ridin slawly oot o toun on his wee dun mare. Sae vogie a thocht wis it that anely nou an then did he think tae rue the loss o his haufpence.


When Till Houletgless did quit toun, the bishop wisnae there tae see it – it wis a Monday, an he wis still sleepin things aff. But frae the clip-ma-clash he wis shuir it wis a chynged an chastened Till wha had troddelt aff intae the distance that morn, wi hardlins a wird or a backwart glence. The througate Till had set aff upon wad tak him tae St Andrews; a fact which gied the bishop nae end o satisfaction, as the Archbishop there had lang syne owed him some siller fae a caird-game. Tae hae got shot o his ain scourge bi dumpin it ontae his enemy seemed itsel like a blissin direct fae the Awmichtie.

It wis wi a licht hert an a lichter purse that the bishop went oot that efternuin tae dish oot the alms. He wis in the mood for a celebration, an he wis in that much o a hurry tae get back inby for a swallae that he even let gan a couple of bawbees he micht itherwise o hung ontae. In nae time at aw the croud wis skailt awa, an the bishop turnt back tae the kirk anely tae find an unco man leanin anenst the doorframe, waitin.

The bishop speelt the staps huily an fairly, no leukin up. When he raxed the tap, the man finally spoke.

“Ah ken it’s no fir yersel, yer Grace,” he said, “But ah couldnae think wha else…”

The bishop opened the letter. It wis in the same spidery script as afore, wi the same tentless merks aw ower it.

Dear God,

Muckle thanks for yer help wi the siller. It wisnae eneuch tae pey for the shoddin, but the blacksmith widna tak ony catter fir it onywey, so it aw wirked oot in the end. Wad ye credit it? Ah guess that’s whit fowk are gettin at when they say that ye wirk in mysterious weys. An there’s yon blacksmith thinkin he wis jist daein me a guid turn.

Onyroads, here’s yer money back. Aw howp ye wirnae ower pushed wioot it. Let me ken if ye’re ever needin a lend yersel.

Aw the best,


P.S. No wantin tae tell ye hou tae gan aboot yer business, but the next time somebody asks ye for a haun, cut oot the middle-man an gie it them direct. Yer messenger stole the hauf o whit ye sent me.

An doun in the letter’s bottom corner, aneath a muckle reid daud o sealin wax, the Bishop o Dunkeld carefully peeled aff a bricht an shiny penny.


I was hugely proud to have been involved in organising the first ever spoken word at the first ever HawickFest. Seemed to go over pretty well – our poets were very happy, anyway!


My old pal and Scots scriever extraordinaire Rab Wilson wrote a very nice piece about the event over at The National – you can find it here: https://t.co/m0kOlWtFUZ

Stowed Out up next!



Couple of things I’ve been up to which are surfacing in the next wee while:

The current issue of Gutter includes some Scots translations of mine, this time from Kafka. They are some short-short stories which I translated before starting to work on “Metamorphosis”, as a kind of test run. Plus there’s always plenty of good stuff in Gutter, and this issue is no exception.

That’s out already. Plus, upcoming: next month’s issue of Nutmeg has an article I’ve written about football culture in the heartlands of rugby. Wee sneak preview below:


Scotland Writers FC

I’ve been away with the Scotland Writers football team twice over the last couple of months – first to “the most Scottish town in Italy”, Barga, and then to London to play England. Both great weekends, both defeats (unfortunately). No doubt more on this to follow, but if you’re interested in finding out a wee bit more about what life as an international footballer isn’t like, the Scotland issue of “The Football Pink”, just published last week, has an article by me about oor jaunt tae Italia. You can get it here, as well as many other fine vendors.

The Chynge

Because what the world is clearly crying out for is a Scots translation of Kafka, I’ve decided to write one. This is the first wee bittie of the first wee bittie.

The Chynge

It wis yon mornin, when Gregor Samsa awauk frae oot wanrestfu dreams, that he fund hissel transformt in his bed intae some kind o tairible beastie. As he lay there on his haurd, sheel-like rig, he raised his heid an leukt at the broon bumphle o his roond belly, sindert oot intae sections bi lang airches. Sae big an brent his muckle-kyte had growen that his blanket wis hairdly able tae hing ontae it, an wis ready tae slide aff awthegither. Compared wi this wappin bouk, his mony legs leukt peetifully shilpit as they flichtert daelessly afore his een.

“Whit’s the story here?” he thocht. This wis nae dream. His room wis still a warldlike human room, quate atween its fower fameeliar waws. On the table lay a range of saumple claiths – Gregor wis a traivelin salesman – an abuin there wis a pictur he had newlins cut oot o an illustratit jurnal an set in a bonnie giltit frame. It wis a drawin o a lady in a fur hat an a fur scaurf, sittin upricht wi a girthie muff o fur kiverin her gairdie, that wis liftit taewart the viewer.

Gregor turnt his glance taewart the windae, but the dreich wather – raindraps stottin aff the metal windaesill – made him feel awfy glumph. “The hicht o nonsense, this! Hou’s aboot ah get a wee bit mair shut-eye an forget aw aboot it,” he thocht tae hissel. But he couldnae manage it, for he wis used tae sleepin on his richt-haun side, an the wey things were richt noo he had nae chance o winnin tae a comfy poseetion. Nae maiter hou haurd he bunged hissel doon ontae his richt, suin or syne he’d whammle straucht back ontae his rig. He must o tried it a hunner times, shuttin his een so’s no tae leuk at his sprauchlin legs, an he gied up anely when he stairtit tae feel a dowf, fremmit stoondin in his side.

“Och, man,” he thocht, “This is some line o wirk ah’ve got masel intae! Day in, day oot, ayeweys on the road. Ah’d much raither hae ma ain wee shop at hame. Whit a nichtmare! The traivel, the trains, the misst connections – ye’re lucky when ye get a bite tae eat, an it’s aye rotten. Niver settin een on the same body twice, niver getting tae ken onybody, niver makkin a pal. The hell wi it!”

He felt a wee kittle up on his belly then; pusht hissel slawly up on his back taewart the headboard, the easier tae lift his heid; locatit the itchy spat, saw that it wis spreckelt ower wi a laid o peerie white plouks he kent naethin aboot; an went tae touch it wi yin o his legs, but resiled awa immediately fae the oorie shidder it gied him.

He sliddert back doon tae ontae his rig. “It’s nae guid this, up at the crack o dawn,” he thocht, “It maks ye doitit. A man needs his eight oors, ah’ve ayeweys said that. Yon ither salesmen! They’re livin the life o Riley, them. Pit it this wey – when ah gan back tae the guest hoose in the mornin tae copy oot the orders, wha’s anely just sittin doon tae brakfast? Nae prizes for guessin! But then, if ah wis tae pull somethin like that wi ma boss, ah’d be oot the door in double-time. An wha kens, mebbe it’d be aw for the guid. Ah mean, if it wisnae for ma mither an faither, ah’d hae jacked it in a hunner times ower bi noo. Ah’d hiv maircht richt intae the heid yin’s office, so ah wid, an telt him a few hame truths. Man, he’d faw richt aff his desk! Wha sits on their desk, onywey? Ah dout it’s meant tae mak ye feel smaw, gittin talked doon tae; an it’d wirk anaw, if he wisnae that deif ye’ve tae sit mare or less on his knee or he cannae hear ye. Well, there’s howp yet. Yinst ah’ve got the money thegither tae pey aff whit ma faither owes him – five years, eh, mebbe six – ah’ll gie him a piece o ma mynd. Aye, there’ll be some big chynges then, ah’m tellin ye! But ah suppose in the meantime ah’d better get up. Ma train’s awa at five.”

An he leukt ower at the alairm clock tickin awa on the caibinet. “Name o God!” he thocht. It wis hauf past six – naw, worse – the hauns had creept forrit nearby tae quarter tae. Had the alarim no went aff? He coud see fae the bed that it wis set for fower o’clock as uisual; it must hae rung. Aye, but then, hou coud onybody hiv slept throu aw that dirdum, lood eneuch tae shoogle the hale room? His sleep had no been tranquil, true, yet it had been aw the mair deep for that. But whit wis he gonnae dae? The neist train wisnae until seiven; an he’d be hilter-skilter even tae catch that, wi his saumples no packed up an his heid still full o mince. An even gin he managed that yin, the boss wad still be on the rampage – the office assistant was ayeweys there tae see the five o’clock train in, an his report on Gregor’s absence wad hae been in a lang time ago. Yon wis a richt wee souk, fair-fleggit an uncharitable. He coud ayeweys report nae weel; but Gregor had no had a day aff seek in the hale five years on the job, an it wad leuk awfy suspicious if he suddently took yin noo. The boss wad turn up wi the doctor fae the insurance company in tow, indict Gregor’s paurents o haein a guid-for-nothin son, an cut aff aw objections bi referrin tae the doctor, tae wha every ailment wis a seemple case o skiveitis. An it wad be a soond diagnosis, since Gregor, apairt fae bein a wee bit drousie fae sleepin that lang, felt awthegither hertie, an had even wauken wi somethin like an appeteet.

He was still thinkin aw this ower at howdie haste, no able to mak his mynd up tae get oot o bed, when – just as the alairm clock hit a quarter tae seiven – there came a tentie chap on the door near the heid o his bed.

“Gregor,” the voice cawed – it wis his mither’s – “That’s quarter tae seiven. Shoud ye no be awa?”

Yon gentle voice! Gregor was startelt when he heard his ain voice in reply, sae unalike it wis tae the voice he’d had afore. It cam fae somewhaur deep doon inside him, an wis blanded in wi a pynefu, undevaulin squeakin soond that left his wirds unnerstaunable anely at the instant they war spaken, afore drounin them in echos. It wis a voice naebody coud be shuir o hearin richt. Gregor wantit tae answer, tae expleen everythin, but unner the circumstances he had nae choice but tae say “Aye, thanks mither, that’s me getting up noo.” The widden door must hae misgysed the chynge in Gregor’s voice, for his mither seemed satisfeed wi this an shauchelt awa. But throu the peerie conversation that had taken place, the ither members o Gregor’s faimily war made awaur (tae their surpreese) that Gregor wis still at hame, an afore lang his faither cam knypin at the door, quately, but wi his fist.

“Gregor!” he shoutit, “Gregor! Whit’s gaun on?” A wee while efter he shoutit again, this time in a voice deep wi wairnishin.

“Gregor! Hoi! Gregor!” Meantime, at the ither side door, cam his sister’s plaintive cry.

“Gregor! Are ye no weel? Are ye needin onythin?”

Gregor directit his answer tae baith doors at yinst. “Ah’m awready ready!” he cawed, tryin haurd tae take the stryngeness oot his voice bi pronooncin every syllable as carefu as he coud, an leavin lang pauses atween the wirds. His faither went back tae brakfast, but his sister whispert tae him, “Gregor, please, ah’m beggin ye – open the door!” But Gregor had nae mynd at aw tae open it, an insteid he lay there congratulatin hissel on his carefu prattick, whit he had picked up on his traivels, o ayeweys lockin aw the doors at nicht, even when he wis at hame.

Edinburgh Book Festival

Some stray observations on speaking about Scots language and Flemish immigration at the Edinburgh Book Festival this week.

1)      People are a lot more interested in the influence of Flemish immigration on Scots language than you would think. The event at the Garden Theatre was sold out, despite my earlier, gloomy prognostications. (Apart from three seats near the front, ostentatiously reserved for “Alexander”.) Interestingly, not many of the folk in the audience wereThomasEdinburghFestivalStage of Flemish ancestry themselves, which means that either A) people were there just because they were genuinely intrigued, or B) Patrick DeWitt, who was on at the same time, had sold out.

2)      I also met Scotland’s newest Flemish immigrant, who had just moved here on Saturday. He was very nice, and a much better argument in favour of Flemish immigration than anything I might have said.

3)      An hour is a lot less time than you think. From having assumed that the event would incorporate a good half-hour of staring silently, pleadingly into the audience for somebody to ask a question, we went on to overrun by quite some time. The questions were very good, very interesting, and I learned quite a few things myself – someone suggested a possible connection between the French word “drache” and the Scots word “dreich”, and another audience member speculated about a possible Flemish/Dutch influence in the ThomasBookSigningHawick pronunciation of the word “mei”.

4)      The Book Festival would not be the Book Festival without my getting a bit carried away telling someone how much I liked their book. This year’s victim was the aforementioned Patrick DeWitt, who I spotted in the Authors Yurt and proceeded to gush to about The Sisters Brothers until I was literally dragged away. (For a photoshoot, I should point out.) If I’d been permitted to stick around for a little longer, instead of having to go away and talk about Flemish or something, I might even have bumped into Gordon Brown behind the scenes, although I haven’t read any of his books so I’m not sure what I would have said to him. Something about how well Raith Rovers are doing, probably. I wouldn’t really know what to say about the prime minister stuff.

Thanks to everybody at the Festival for looking after me, and for inviting me in the first place, and also to my fine partners for the event, Roger Mason and Willie Kelly. Roger is spearheading some fantastic work in the field of Scots-Flemish relations at St Andrews, and I look forward to reading the fruits of his labours in the not-too-distant future!

Selkirk FC vs the World!

Selkirk FC Vs The World CoverWith the new Lowland League season kicking off today, Selkirk Football Club and myself are awfy pleased to announce the publication of “Selkirk FC vs the World!”

“Selkirk FC vs the World!” is the end result of the first season of my poetry residency at Selkirk Football Club, and collects together twenty-five poems and short stories I wrote for the club throughout the course of the year. From a Subbuteo league in post-apocalypse Glasgow to the 1930 World Cup Final, these pieces are, I suppose, a wee mind-map to what I think about when I think about football; or, in other words, the whole book is a kind of 200-page paean to the act of being grimly resigned.

Not that I’m done thinking about football just yet, or writing about it, for that matter. But the residency has been a fantastic platform to write about the things I’m really interested in (i.e. post-apocalyptic Glaswegian Subbuteo leagues) and also to learn a bit more about how lower league football (i.e. the vast majority of football played in this or any country) actually happens. Huge thanks to Selkirk FC and everyone involved with for that.

You can pick up a copy of the book here – you can even review it, which would be lovely and make me feel as if I’m not just banging my head repeatedly on the dangerously low overhang of the Selkirk dugout. It’s nicer than macaroni pies, better for you than Bovril, and cheaper than actually going to a game. Best of all, if you buy it this weekend it’s completely gratis. There’s not a lot in Scottish football nowadays which is free, Kris Boyd apart. So you can’t really say much fairer than that.

An Evening With Ian McMillan

I love Eyemouth. I really do. It’s such a wonderful, picturesque town. My in-laws were up house-WP_20160603_20_35_52_Prohunting in the Borders last week, and when we brought them to Eyemouth at the weekend it looked like we weren’t leaving without at least a seaside bungalow added to our portfolio.

Of course, in this sunny spate of weather everything in the Borders is looking at its best. But Eyemouth is so often underappreciated and overlooked that it was particularly nice to see it on one of its prettier days, and especially to visit its new arts venue, the Hippodrome, gleaming by the side of the Maritime Museum down at the Harbour Road.

Ian and Paula Todd, whose brainchild the Hippodrome is, have done an incredible job in converting the former Fisherman’s Mission into one of the most impressive new arts venues I’ve seen in a long time. Not just that, but in the short time they’ve been up and running they’ve attracted some absolutely brilliant performers to the Borders, including – on Friday night – myself and none other than the amazing Ian McMillan.

Now, Ian is one of those rare, vital figures whose appeal cuts right across the artistic spectrum. Friends who I’d long assumed didn’t have a poetic bone in their body suddenly revealed themselves as raving verse-o-philes once they found out Ian McMillan was coming to the Borders. God knows how difficult it is to get folk out for anything nowadays, so to have a venue like the Hippodrome full to capacity for a poetry event, as it was on Friday night, is a wonderful thing.

I’m very glad that the convention is for opening acts rather than closing ones, because I would IanMcnot have wanted to follow the poetic force of nature that is Ian McMillan. The guy is just a phenomenon, a one-man masterclass in taking an audience wherever he wants to go. I don’t know how many calories laughing burns off, but there’s no doubt folk were coming out lighter in every way than when they went in. Wonderful audience, fantastic venue, and an amazing privilege to share a stage with… Well, they say you should never meet your own heroes, but then they probably never met Ian McMillan.

I was back at the Hippodrome on Saturday morning, this time with my wife, Sara, for our creative writing workshop “Eye Write”. Some absolutely fantastic writing came out of the workshop, as well as (hopefully!) some great new writers. It was particularly lovely to see a real range in terms of age and experience – our youngest writers were primary school age, and the work they produced was impressive to say the least. If the writing bug catches folk that early on, the sky really is the limit for what they can achieve.

I was genuinely gutted to have to finish up the workshop when it had overrun by almost half an hour. Ditto to leave Eyemouth a wee while after that, heavier by the weight of a 99 flake and two shoefuls of sand. Yet without venues like the Eyemouth Hippodrome to draw folk in, and funding from Borders Live Touring to make these events viable, there’s so much about places like Eyemouth that would go utterly unappreciated. The Hippodrome is providing a vital service, not just to artists and audiences but to the town as a whole. Long may that continue.