Writing in Scots

More often than not I’ll drop the odd Scots word into poems and stories, either because nothing else will do, or to make a point that it’s the language appropriate to my culture, ancestry and nationality. I’ll say dreich, or outbye, or any one of a host of Scots words that have no exact equivalent in the English that I use in everyday speech and writing.

But I don’t all that often write a whole poem in Scots – and maybe I should – and nor do I write many stories in Scots. Except that I have written a few poems in demotic Scots (Confession, in The Propriety of Weeding (Red Squirrel Press, 2012), and I recently finished a short story where much of the dialogue is in the Doric of Moray, a slightly different, softer flavour of tongue from my ancestral Aberdeenshire Doric. And I absolutely loved writing it.

But when I write something solely in Scots, I’m struck by the power of the language, its hospitality to thoughts and concepts, and the beauty of it. Read Gavin Douglas or William Dunbar to get the full force.

My first published poem in Scots was A Postcaird Frae Posteritie, but it was a linguistic hybrid. I’m happier with some of the later ones, and my favourite is probably Wrack, published in Sushi & Chips (Diehard, 2006). It’s all Scots.


I’ the herbour a selkie
speirs air, dooks,
nebs the scag
strawn aboot the glaury grund.

Neist the ness, skellie-guttit,
the ‘Blithesome Weedae’ dings a mirkie mark;
the sea’s swoof sooks in an oot
the toom winnocks o the wheelhoose,
howders the tang-quaitened bell
‘at cries the maws
til their roupit saums.

I wrote it at Cove Harbour, near Dunbar, back in 2002, imagining the wreck of a fishing boat submerged below the waves, its barely heard bell still ringing as the tides surge through its skeleton.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Game theory

I watched Hannah Fry’s programme on game theory last night, and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve been a maths nerd since I did an Open University maths course in the 1970s, but I had actually encountered game theory a short while before then.

It’s the branch of mathematics which deals with strategies of interactions. It has implications for economics, social situations and politics, as well as evolutionary theory and ecology. It links in to probability and statistics, two more mathematical disciplines I’m interested in. That way you can plug in numerical values for outcomes and work out optimal strategies that take account of competition versus cooperation, doves versus hawks, and work out the benefits and costs of specific actions.

It occurred to me while watching the programme that I could possibly write short stories which have these principles underlying them. Real life often has these situations where problems can be solved in one of two ways – or actually one of four ways if two individuals are involved (it’s a 2×2 matrix). Stories have to have a problem, a dilemma, a tension, a conflict, which the writer follows through to a resolution.

Normally when I start to write a story, I don’t know how it’s going to end. This time I’m going to know the ending, and I can work out what strategies the protagonists are going to adopt to achieve their separate goals, but I’m going to be writing it backwards.

Wish me luck.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Books published in my lifetime

Books published 1942- [actually the list ends in 2017, but I’m not finished yet]

This was supposed to be a list featuring one book from each year of my life. The books are ones which I have read at least once, or which I still consider significant reads for me. Some of them I still keep coming back to. The trouble was, I found it really hard, for some years, to restrict myself to just one per year, so I’ve indulged myself and included several ‘extras’.
1942 Albert Camus: The Stranger
1942: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson: On Growth and Form [I encountered this in 1970 – an amazing concept in biology]
1943 T S Eliot: Four Quartets
1944 George Polya: How to Solve It [Encountered it as an OU maths text in 1971 and learned to apply its principles and strategies in life also]
1945 Elizabeth Smart: By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept
1945: George Orwell: Animal Farm
1946: William Carlos Williams: Paterson
1946: Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan
1947: Robert Graves: I, Claudius
1947: Albert Camus: The Plague
1948 Ezra Pound: Pisan Cantos
1949: George Orwell: 1984
1950: Ernest Hemingway: Across the River and Into the Trees [actually, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a better book, but it was published in 1940]
1951: Ray Bradbury: The Illustrated Man [The Martian Chronicles is superb too]
1952: Heinrich Harrer: Seven Years in Tibet [I also like his book on the Eiger, The White Spider. Who can forget the heartbreaking and harrowing story of the Hinterstoisser Traverse?]
1952: Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems
1953: L.P. Hartley: The Go-Between
1953: Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood
1954: William Golding: Lord of the Flies [And The Inheritors, told in the person of a Neanderthal]
1955: Samuel Beckett: Waiting For Godot [Heard it first as a radio play]
1956: Allen Ginsberg: Howl
1957: Jack Kerouac: On the Road
1957: Alan Watts: The Way of Zen
1958: Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
1958: Gregory Corso: Gasoline
1959: Günter Grass: The Tin Drum
1959: Jack Kerouac: Mexico City Blues
1959: Walter M Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz
1959: D T Suzuki: Zen and Japanese Culture
1959: Jerome Rothenberg (ed): New Young German Poets
1960: Lawrence Durrell: Clea [I actually had the temerity to write about this for my Higher English in 1960. I got the Higher.]
1960: Donald M Allen (ed): The New American Poetry, 1945-60 [This book has been a major influence on me since I first read it in 1960]
1961: Joseph Heller: Catch-22
1961: Robert Ardrey: African Genesis
1962: J G Ballard: The Drowned World
1963: Thomas Pynchon: V
1963: George Schaller: The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and behavior
1964: Richard Brautigan: A Confederate General At Big Sur
1965: Frank Herbert: Dune
1965: Gordon Y Craig: The Geology of Scotland
1965: Jack Kerouac: Desolation Angels
1966: Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
1966: Basho: The Narrow Roads to the Deep North (Penguin edition)
1966: Robert Ardrey: The Territorial Imperative
1966: DeVore, Irven (ed): Primate behaviour; field studies of monkeys and apes
1967: Roger Zelazny: Lord of Light
1968: John Updike: Couples
1969: John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
1970: Larry Niven: Ringworld
1970: Gass, Ian (ed): Understanding the Earth
1971: Jane Goodall: In the Shadow of Man
1972: Paul Celan: Poems
1973: Erica Jong: Fear of Flying
1973: Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow
1974: Robert M Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [I still think of this book and what I learned from it]
1975: Primo Levi: The periodic Table
1976: Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene
1976: Lisa Alther: Skinflicks
1976: Raymond Carver: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please
1977: Marilyn French: The Women’s Room
1978: John Irving: The World According to Garp
1979: Tom Wolfe: The Right Stuff
1980: Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose
1981: Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children
1982: Brian W Aldiss: Helliconia Spring
1983: Charles Olson: The Maximus Poems
1984: Iain Banks: The Wasp factory
1985: Jeanette Winterson: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
1986: Terry Pratchett: The Light Fantastic
1986: Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones
1987: Roddy Doyle: The Commitments [And I loved the film.]
1987: D J Mabberley: The Plant Book
1988: Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time
1989: Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
1990: Iain M Banks: Use of Weapons
1991: Angela Carter: Wise Children [And I loved Nights At the Circus]
1991: Alan Spence:  Glasgow Zen
1992: Peter Høeg: Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow
1993: Annie Proulx: The Shipping News
1993: Renni Browne and Dave King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers [The best practical writing manual]
1994: Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting
1994: Donny O’Rourke (ed): Dream State
1995: Philip Pullman: Northern Lights [Plus the others in the trilogy]
1995: Kathleen Jamie: The Queen of Sheba
1996: Colin Will: Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Highlands [My first poetry book to be published, so highly influential then and now]
1996: Robert Silverberg: The Majipoor Chronicles
1997: Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
1997: Bernard MacLaverty: Grace Notes
1998: Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters
1999: Sena Jeter Naslund: Ahab’s Wife
2000: Stephen King: On Writing
2000: Colin Tudge: The Variety of Life
2001: Yann Martel: Life of Pi
2001: Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind
2002:  Billy Collins: Nine Horses [and many other collections by him]
2003: Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
2004: Richard Dawkins: The Ancestor’s Tale
2004: Roger Penrose: The Road To Reality: A complete guide to the laws of the universe [Difficult maths but very rewarding]
2004: Christopher Booker: The Seven Basic Plots
2005: Norman MacCaig: Collected Poems (new edition)
2005: Margaret Atwood: Hag-Seed
2006: Alan Spence: The Pure Land
2007: David Hinton: Mountain Home; the wilderness poetry of ancient China
2007: Hiroshige: One hundred Famous Views of Edo (Taschen edition)
2008: Ben Goldacre: Bad Science
2009: Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
2010 James Robertson: And the Land Lay Still
2011: Caitlin Moran: How To Be a Woman
2012: Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways
2013: Barry Cunliffe: Britain begins
2014: James Robertson: 365 Stories
2015: Jean Manco: Ancestral Journeys
2016: Kathleen Jamie: Findings
2017: Barry Cunliffe: On the Ocean

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trust me, I’m a doctor

I don’t think I’ve ever written anything before about getting my PhD, but I was feeling a bit nostalgic the other day, plus I had a dream about Murchison House, where I used to to work.

Back in 1966 I was working in West Lothian, in public libraries. I’d got my library qualifications but, frankly, I didn’t really fancy staying in public libraries for the rest of my career. I had a hankering to move into a scientific library, but I didn’t have a degree. Then, thanks to the wonderful Jenny Lee, Education Minister in the then Labour government, the Open University started in 1971. I was one of its first students (I still remember my old student number). I crammed it, and got a degree in maths and science, with a distinction in Geology and Geochemistry. After all, who really needs more than three hours sleep a night? I started work in the then Institute of Geological Sciences (which much later became the British Geological Survey), as their Edinburgh librarian. I loved the job.

By the 1980’s I’d started to compile annual lists of theses in Scottish geology, which were published in the Scottish Journal of Geology. At some point I started to wonder what became of the research written up in these theses. How did it become incorporated into the corpus of geological knowledge? And how did it reflect the prevailing background theories of geology. This was at the time when plate tectonics was revolutionising our views of the Earth and its history.

So I wrote to the Professor of Information Science at Strathclyde, outlining my ideas, and wondering if research along these lines was feasible. He wrote back immediately, inviting me for an interview. After it, he offered me the chance to do an M.Sc by research, and I agreed to embark on the work, having developed my own ideas on the research methodology I would follow, and fitting that into the time I would have left over from my paid work as a librarian, and my life as a family man with a wife and two sons. But the Open University had taught me how to be self-motivating and self-reliant.

At the six month report stage, Professor Cronin said I was uncovering so much new information that he wanted to convert my course to an M.Phil, and after the first year it was further extended to a study for a PhD.

I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the research, but I looked into how many of the theses on the subject had been consulted in University libraries and borrowed from the British Library, how many had been cited by other authors, and other measures of use. I developed a model of co-citation analysis to see which words, used in thesis titles, reflected the underlying paradigms of the science, so it became to some extent an epistemological study. I learned statistical techniques and cluster analysis, I learned how to use a FORTRAN program to map the localities of geological research, I read voraciously, and I became fascinated by the process of scientific communication. It’s not linear, that’s the main thing, and there are a few specific centres of excellence where the most influential work comes from.

Halfway through the process I left BGS to become Chief Librarian of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, with all the challenges that involved, but I continued with the research, working on at nights after the library closed, thanks to the presence of overnight security guards, and at weekends.

Finally, after six years of part-time research and study, it was finished, and I graduated from the Department of Information Science, University of Strathclyde, in November 1991. It was at the time one of the greatest achievements of my life, and it changed the course of it, as the Open University had done earlier.

It gave me a lot of confidence, in knowing that I had the capacity and stamina to undertake something difficult, something long-term, with no certainty at the outset that I would succeed, but that I would find a way. That stood me in good stead later when my boss asked me to take on the role of Garden Secretary, responsible for finance, personnel and administration. Then later when the Chairman of the Board of Trustees asked me to take on temporary responsibility for managing the whole organisation.

On the use of the research thesis in scientific communication, with particular reference to theses in Scottish geology is my magnum opus. I was 49. Nothing wrong with being a late developer.

The blog post title? Oh, after my graduation, my youngest son gave me a T-shirt with the words Trust Me, I’m a Doctor on the front. I wore it quite often, until one day, at a Courtyard Reading in the Scottish Poetry Library, a young member of the audience passed out. Medical attention was called for, and I found myself hiding my chest when the paramedics arrived. I didn’t think his problem could be solved by someone with a background in information management.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Word Play launched



CW_Word Play

Here I am, at home after the launch, about to go out for a natter with my neighbours.

The launch, at the Scottish Poetry Library, was a joint one with my friend and CoastWord colleague Hannah Lavery. I hadn’t seen the book before I walked in to the Library, so it was lovely to see Sheila Wakefield sitting at the sales table, all set up, and with the author copies of the book all ready for me.

The audience was excellent, with lots of our friends sitting in the front rows. Hannah read first, giving us a variety of the very short, short and longer pieces from her pamphlet, Rocket Girls.

I had decided I would read the beginnings of six of the stories, then the whole of a single story. It felt right to do it that way, and the audience reactions were just what I’d hoped for. I think I’ll do that again at future launches.

This is my sixth publication with Red Squirrel Press/Postbox Press, and my eleventh altogether. I hope there will be more.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Calder Wood Press


I’ve been spurred into action by a visit to the Scottish Poetry Library, and a subsequent email. Now that my old Calder Wood Press domain is no longer in use, there’s nowhere for a listing of the titles I published between 1997 and 2015. So here it is:

Titles published by Calder Wood Press, 1997-2015

Author Title Format Year
Colin Will Flowers of Scotland Poem card 1997
Colin Will Painted Fruits Poem card 1997
Colin Will Roundabout Livingston Poem Card 1997
Colin Will Landings Poem Card 1997
Colin Will Robin’s Rowan Privately published card 1999
West Lothian Schools Six hundred lines haiku pamphlet 2000
Quill Writers Group Regalia Pamphlet anthology 2001
Colin Will Mementoliths Poetry pamphlet with geological notes 2005
Gerry Urwin A Feat of Arms Book (history) 2006
Mary Johnston Kennt His Faither Short story pamphlet 2007
Dunbar Writers Tidelines Pamphlet anthology 2007
Mercedes Claraso A Blessing of Unicorns Poetry pamphlet 2007
Jo Gibson The Heart is Always Full Poetry pamphlet 2007
Anna Dickie Heart Notes Poetry pamphlet 2008
Anne Connolly Downside Up Poetry pamphlet 2008
David Purdie The Biggers Poetry pamphlet 2008
Donald McKinney Why We Howl at the Moon Short story book 2008
Jayne Wilding Sky Blue Notebook Poetry pamphlet 2008
Catriona Malan Love Affair With Mussels Poetry pamphlet 2008
Lillias Forbes A hesitant opening of parasols Poetry pamphlet 2009
Irene Brown Glass Slippers Poetry pamphlet 2009
Mary Johnston Fa dis she think she is? Poetry pamphlet 2009
Kevin Cadwallender Dog Latin Poetry pamphlet 2009
Jane Wilde Words, words, words Poetry pamphlet 2009
David Purdie The Godothin Version in Scots 2009
Gerry Urwin A Muse To Amuse Poetry pamphlet 2009
Lyn Moir Easterly, Force 10 Poetry pamphlet 2009
Morgan Downie stone and sea Poetry book 2010
Juliet Wilson Unthinkable Skies Poetry pamphlet 2010
Judith Stewart Brief Encounters Poetry pamphlet 2010
Christine Ford Pink Socks and Walking Boots Poetry pamphlet 2010
Eddie Gibbons Why she flew to Barcelona Poetry pamphlet 2010
Geoff Cooper Songs the Lightning Sang Poetry pamphlet 2010
Mercedes Claraso Setting Out Poetry pamphlet 2010
Judith Taylor Local Colour Poetry pamphlet 2010
Marion MacCready Vintage Sea Poetry pamphlet 2011
Lyn Moir Velazquez’s Riddle Poetry pamphlet 2011
Sonata Paliulyte Still Life Poetry pamphlet 2011
Stephen Barnaby Self-Loathing Ostrich Poetry pamphlet 2012
Alistair Noon Out of the cave Poetry pamphlet 2011
Jo Gibson Everything I thought I knew Poetry pamphlet 2013
Ross Wilson The Heavy Bag Poetry pamphlet 2011
Alec Finlay Question your teaspoons Poetry pamphlet 2012
Jill Madden Ticket to Sugarloaf Short story book 2013
Janette Ayachi Choir of ghosts Poetry pamphlet 2013
Amy Anderson Night’s Fresh Velvet Poetry pamphlet 2013
Jane Overton Short Term Parking Poetry pamphlet 2013
Colin Will The year’s six seasons Poetry pamphlet 2013
Dunbar Writers Wild Words Pamphlet anthology 2014
Lindsay Macgregor The Weepers Poetry pamphlet 2015
Nuala Watt Dialogue On the Dark Poetry pamphlet 2015

This list is of printed works only, i.e. it excludes e-book versions.

The Press was wound up in 2016.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The new book

Word Play, a new full-length of previously unpublished short stories, will be launched by Postbox Press at the Scottish Poetry Library on Saturday 30th June (1pm – all welcome). It’s been a long time coming. I used to think I was a prolific writer of poetry, but there were days, weeks even, when I didn’t write any new poems. Not so with the short stories. I can’t stop writing them. I write every day, and most of my writing is short fiction.

Selection was always going to be difficult then, but by the end of last year I had a group of stories I had confidence in. There are twenty in the book. I hope readers will find them varied and interesting. There’s no theme, but they are mostly about relationships between people. I find that my ‘characters’ quickly become people. I can see them in my imagination; I can hear their conversations, their interactions.

I’m the editor at Postbox Press, so it might seem there’s a conflict there, but I submitted them to Sheila Wakefield, founder and publisher at Red Squirrel Press, in the same way other prospective authors do, and the decision to publish was hers. I’ve written in an earlier blog post about my decision to send them for an impartial and objective assessment and critique to The Literary Consultancy. I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a writer. The feedback was spot-on and invaluable, even if it did mean rewriting the majority of the stories.

I’ve now proof-read the text, expertly and cleverly set by Gerry Cambridge, who also designed the cover. It’s out of my hands now, off to the printer, and I can now turn my thoughts to other things. Except I can’t.  I’ve noticed this before with other books. There’s a dip in my energy, my inspiration, after a book is away. I have lots of unfinished stories on file; lots of fragments, starts and endings I could work on, but every time I start looking at them I feel restless, and dissatisfied with them. Some of them might go somewhere, others will definitely not. No doubt after the launch I’ll knuckle down and begin work again, but until then I’ll just continue writing my daily journal, and not worry too much about new stories. They will come.

Word Play cover


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment